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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) (1905)
An operetta in three acts, with words by Victor Léon (Viktor Hirschfeld) and Leo Stein (Leo Rosenstein). dialogue and lyrics in German
Dagmar Schellenberger (sop) - Hanna; Rodney Gilfry (ten) - Danilo; Rudolf A. Hartmann - Baron Zeta; Ute Gfrerer - Valencienne; Piotr Beczala (ten) - Camille; Herbert Prikopa (bar) - Njegus.
Orchestra and Choir of the Opera House Zurich/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, Zurich Opera House, Switzerland, 2004
DVD Region 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100451 [125:00]


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Of all Lehár’s operatic output The Merry Widow has stood the test of time. It is interesting to note that any BBC performance would have been assigned to Radio 2 until New York’s Metropolitan Opera upgraded the work’s respectability by mounting a production. This was relayed to Radio 3 and so is now accepted as not being too light-weight for Radio 3.

Lehár was a composer who tried to gain the interest of theatre-goers with operettas written between 1893 and 1904. None succeeded in captivating public interest until in 1905 he composed The Merry Widow. Its libretto started life as a French play by Alexander Bergen. This was adapted and translated into German by Leon & Stein. They sensibly retained the Maxim’s Parisian nightclub to provide a lively and colourful Act III. Lehár was not in fact their first choice of composer. It was offered first to Heuberger for setting, but they disliked his initial attempts and approached Lehár instead.

When Lehár moved to Vienna he was in a good position to study the operetta form from the variety of works that played through the late 1890s. His robustly tuneful style needs no introduction yet it is interesting to know that his background was that of a military bandmaster.

Apart from The Widow’s captivating music, it is always a pleasure to find a modern operatic production enhanced with good staging and appealing scenery. So often one is expected to accept inadequate minimalistic sets: consequently, such productions do not often make attractive video presentations. The production unit chooses to run titles over the opening number; this for me is a disappointment. It would have been so easy to use a shot of the auditorium as backing for this purpose.

From the outset the spectacular ballroom scene of the first Act bubbles with aristocratic life. Good stage business, fast pace and elegant groupings give a charming ambience in which this frothy folly takes place. Much attention has been paid to the acting: a mischievously flirtatious Valencienne partnered by a particularly attentive Camille gives us a delightful “A highly respectable wife” while Baron Zeta ably holds attention with his robust presence and authoritative singing.

The star of the show, Anna (mezzo) is well balanced with Danilo in their duets. However, despite a good stage presence and a Nureyev-likeness appropriate for this egocentric part, I would have preferred Danilo to be played by a purer tenor rather than, as here, one with distinctly baritone overtones. This point put aside, it must be said that his drunken entrance and sensuous encounter with Anna is very well acted. Unusually, his entrance song, “You’ll find me at Maxim’s” is sung without any ladies’ chorus, unlike the English version by Phil Park. In the moonlit Act 2 Garden scene with silvery weeping willows hanging like a frieze Lehár’s Hungarian roots show in his opening Pontevedrian peasant dance. Anna’s Viennese “Vilja” is sung with feeling and charm. Perhaps attention is stolen by Camille’s Romance duet with Valencienne, so beautifully sung by this high tenor. The finale of the act sees Anna ridiculing Danilo successfully in a vivacious and energetic manner. The attention-seeking Valencienne as a Grisette in Act 3 clearly enjoys herself in a fast-moving dancing spectacle involving waiters and tarty pink can-can dancers. A bonus to the performance is the extended curtain call where the conductor comes on stage, is adorned with a pink grisette fur and a member of the cast steals to the pit to conduct an encore.

The large orchestra is good, but there are moments when blended harmonies are a bit edgy. Also some of the orchestral arrangements seem to have been altered, and not to good effect - or is it that I am severely conditioned by previous performances? The voices are well balanced with each other yet at times the orchestra is a little high.

The video presentation is excellent with good camera angles and framing. An opera video is much more appealing when we have good stage visuals, and here the spectacular sets of this Zurich production are a delight. Why they had to roll opening credits after the Introduction to Act 1 had started I cannot comprehend. Act 2 runs straight on from the Act 1 finale after brief applause, with no caption only a shot of the orchestra to tell us where we are.

There are three audio settings and subtitles in five languages along with the usual scene selection, but not related to each musical number.

Raymond J Walker







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