All you need to know about The Merry Widow in one place – right here!
What is the story?
Hanna Glawari is a vastly wealthy young widow from the small and poverty-stricken Balkan province of Pontevedro. Ambassador Baron Zeta is anxious that when Hanna re-marries, it is to a Pontevedrian and not a Frenchman, to keep her money in the country and save them all from ruin. The obvious choice is Count Danilo, but there is a problem. They are exes, and he is too proud to marry her for her money.
Misunderstandings and comic intrigue abound when it transpires that the Baron’s wife, Valencienne, is having an affair (and with Frenchman Camille, Count de Rosillon, no less!) and Hanna steps in to save the married lady’s reputation. When Hanna claims that it is she who intends to marry Camille, the Pontevedrians despair, but Danilo is forced to recognise the extent of his feelings for her. How will it end? Will they? Won’t they?
Who are the characters?
Hanna Glawari – a wealthy widow (soprano)
Count Danilo – First Secretary of the Pontevedrian embassy (baritone)
Baron Zeta – the Ambassador (baritone)
Valencienne – Baron Zeta’s wife (soprano)
Camille, Count de Rosillon – French attaché to the embassy (tenor)
…plus many other many other characters, including diplomats, embassy secretaries, consuls, their wives, full chorus (as Parisians and Pontevedrians) and dancers!
Dancers Richard Bermange, Joshua Donald, Diana Girbau, Chloe Murray, Rebecca Scanlon and Marco Venturini © Robert Workman
What is the music like?
Lehár’s score for The Merry Widow skilfully interweaves different musical colours to reflect the two contrasting cultures in the operetta’s plot. He vividly paints the glamour of Parisian society at the turn of the 20th century with can-cans, galops and glorious waltzes, while rustic and folk elements (including a traditional ‘kolo’ dance for Hanna and Danilo) represent the Balkan state.
Particular highlights include Hanna’s beautiful ‘Vilja Song’ in Act II, an old Pontevedrian song about a mythical forest fairy who enchants hunters. With its folk inspired melody and floated top Bs, it is now a favourite of the soprano repertoire. Another regularly performed favourite is the sweeping Merry Widow waltz, both tender and joyous, which concludes the piece and its happy ending.
What is this production like?
Giles Havergal’s opulent production remains faithful to the period, and to ‘Lehár’s spirit of gaiety and romance’ (The Telegraph). Leslie Travers’ set is a constantly evolving, kaleidoscopic world, with elements that move around to create each scene, including chandelier light boxes which descend from above and a set of six sensually sculpted statues.
Beautiful period costumes tell the story and paint the difference between the Parisians and the Pontevedrians – the French are in white tie and tails, whereas those from the Balkan state are dressed in their splendid military uniforms. There are also references to Eastern European folk dress in the Act II party scene, and frilly pink knickers for the can-can dancers… See some of the original costume designs below.
Who was the composer?
The Merry Widow was written by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár (1870–1948). Lehár is best known for his operettas. The Merry Widow was his biggest success, although ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!’ (‘You are my heart’s delight’) from The Land of Smiles has also become a standard in its own right.
Unlike the composition of many operas, Lehár was brought on board fairly late in the day. The Merry Widow was the brainchild of original librettists Leo Stein and Viktor Léon, who had come across a play named L’attaché d’ambassade and thought it would make a good operetta. Lehár wasn’t even the first composer that they approached – he was the second – but once the librettists were convinced by his ability to create an authentic Parisian atmosphere, the score only took a few months to complete.
The Merry Widow, or Die lustige Witwe in German, premiered in Vienna in 1905, and went onto a successful run of 483 performances. It has since been adapted and translated into several different languages, and staged all over the world. Our Merry Widow is performed in a translation and adaptation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, especially for this production.
Franz Lehár in his apartment in Vienna, 1918 © Charles Scolik
Did you know?
– The Merry Widow’s overture – a whistle stop tour of all the best tunes – is very popular as a standalone concert piece. However, the operetta originally had no overture – Lehár wrote one for the 400th performance. It is rarely used in productions today, as the original short introduction is preferred.
– Lehár got a big stamp of approval from his cast – the original 1905 Hanna and Danilo (operetta stars Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann) were both so enthusiastic about the piece that they supplemented the theatre’s relatively low-budget production by paying for their own lavish costumes.
– Despite almost everyone connected to the piece (bar Lehár himself) being Jewish, one of The Merry Widow’s biggest fans was Adolf Hitler, who had fallen in love with the piece early on in its life. According to reports, the first thing Hitler did to celebrate the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 was play a recording of the operetta, and during the last two years of the war, he listened to The Merry Widow over and over, driving everyone in his ‘Wolf’s Lair’ headquarters mad.
Lehár used Hitler’s infatuation to his own advantage – in 1938 he was able to obtain ‘Ehrenarierin’ (honorary Aryan) status for his Jewish wife, thus securing her safety.
Amy Freston as Valencienne (2011) © Alastair Muir