The Merry Widow

Article by Brian Sewell

For the Opera there one must always plan ahead or stay in the very best hotels and offer the desk clerks quite outrageous tips, but for operetta one need do neither – it is always on, it seems, seats are always to be had, and the production is original, authentic and exactly as it was on the first night in 1893, 1910 or 1934, in the sense that costumes, scenery and the production have survived a century unchanged, dusty and bedraggled, stilted and stagey, a hackneyed ritual.  The performance is utterly predictable to an ancient audience of crones and dotards who, when the overture begins, take it as the signal to subside into the most uncomfortable attitudes of sleep, and all around him the casual visitor is as much aware of stertorous breathing in the stalls as of song from the stage and music from the pit; he leaves the theatre as though departing from the Vale of Lethe, convinced that in Vienna operetta is as dead as were the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan until the English National Opera sank its teeth in The Mikado.

Thus it was when I first drove into Vienna in 1964, a careless but enquiring young man in a white Daimler drop-head coupé, and thus it has been ever since.  Thus are mingled with memories of Lippizaner horses in nearby Alpine meadows and of great paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, recollections of faded performances of operettas by composers of whom I knew nothing before and have heard nothing since; thus it was even in the bitter winter of 1991 when the city mourned the death of Mozart two centuries before, for not even in memory of Mozart on the very day of his departure, did operetta go into abeyance.  In Vienna perpetuum mobile is operetta.

Much Viennese operetta, I have no doubt, deserves the obscurity in which it languishes everywhere except Vienna.  Both a local dish and a thing of its time, it could not travel well…and yet Die Fledermaus has survived the general dismissal of the genre and, taken by the scruff of its neck at Glyndebourne and the ENO, has edged, if not into grand opera, at least into opera buffa and dramma giocoso – so much so that we pay it the compliment of not translating its title; by Johann Strauss II, even Mahler thought it surprisingly good and was happy to conduct it.  What, I wonder, did he think of Lehár’s The Merry Widow, three decades later than Die Fledermaus, repeating its rip-roaring success, both first mounted at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna’s temple of operetta, the one the finest example of the genre’s Golden Age, the other downgraded to mere silver?

Mere silver it may be, and as Viennese audiences did not at once take it to their hearts and the critics were far from kind, tickets had at first to be given away to fill the houses.  That may reflect an initial lack of polish, for rehearsals were late, few and exhaustingly far into the early hours; moreover, the theatre’s director, Wilhelm Karczag, was ill at ease with Lehár’s music – too sensual, he thought, more vaudeville than operetta – withdraw it, he suggested to the composer, offering him a bribe of 5,000 crowns.  To Lehár’s refusal his response was to be mean with the production, re-using scenery and costumes piecemeal from other operettas in the hope of swiftly engineering failure.  Within a week or two, however, the performance had gained both pace and polish, and audiences and reputation grew; within a year The Merry Widow was in demand all over Europe; within two years it was being performed the length of the Americas, from New York to Buenos Aires, and Lehár, by then in his later thirties, was suddenly a millionaire.  It may well be true that The Merry Widow was in simultaneous performance in five hundred theatres.

Lehár’s had been a slow start, with the disadvantage, in 1870, of being born in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus the subject of snobbish prejudice – not unlike being of Irish or Welsh birth in Victorian Britain; Komarom, his birthplace, lies between Budapest and Bratislava.  Christened Ferencz, eventually changed to Franz, he was the son of a military bandmaster, and it was with brass and marches that he made his first acquaintance with music.  Constantly on the move between the Empire’s widespread military towns, the child learned, before he could read, to play the piano and the violin, and in 1882, something of a prodigy with the latter, he enrolled at the Conservatoire in Prague, then in the north-west corner of the Empire.  He stayed for six years, until Dvořák, it seems, gave him the advice “Hang up your fiddle and start composing.”  He then became the private pupil of Zdenĕk Fibich, a Czech composer of romantic bent who worked as a conductor of theatre orchestras, remembered, if at all, for ever ambitious music melodramas.  One might argue that with Fibich lay the first foundations of Lehár’s success as a man of the theatre, but there was then too long a break – compulsory army service turned him into a bandsman, even assistant leader of his father’s band and, eventually, the Empire’s youngest military bandmaster.  Though in 1896 he wrote a serious opera, Kukuška, for the twelve years between 1890 and 1902 it was as a conductor of military bands that he earned his living.

For her Gold and Silver Ball in January 1902, Princess Metternich turned to bandmaster Lehár for the title waltz – the first composition to be noticed by the public and the key to his future.  With the phenomenal response to it he resigned from the army and later that year was appointed conductor at the Theater an der Wien; within months he had composed Wiener Frauen, a considerable success, and three more operettas quickly followed before the libretto of The Merry Widow was sent him by its authors.  These, Victor Leon and Leo Stein, had already worked with Lehár on another operetta, but they first sent this libretto to an older composer, the now utterly forgotten Richard Heuberger, more irascible critic than composer and no admirer of Lehár; he had worked on it for many months in 1903-4, but the management of the Theater an der Wien rejected his score and suggested that Lehár should be offered the libretto.  The myth is that Leon and Stein sent the words of one song to him – the “Dummer, dummer Reitersmann” duet from Act II, and that within the day of its receipt the composer picked up the telephone and through its crackles played them the merry tune that is in the final score.

The libretto was based on L’Attaché d’Ambassade, a comedy by Henri Meilhac, writer of libretti for Offenbach.  The complications of the plot were not one whit reduced by Leon and Stein; set in the Paris embassy of Balkan kingdom of Pontevedro, it is a Charlie’s Aunt of a tale, with the ambassador worried that the wealthiest of all Pontevedran widows will marry a Frenchman who will then deprive Pontevedro of her money; the whole economy of the country is at stake and, unaware that they have already had an affair, he would have Count Danilo, an eligible Pontevedran bachelor, woo her.  A sub-plot has the ambassador’s young wife, Valencienne, flirting with Camille, a French aristocrat whom, it seems at one point, the widow might decide to marry.  Danilo asks her not to do so, they confess their love for each other, and all, except for the French suitors, live happily ever after.

There is a place called Pontevedro, high in the Alpi Lepontine, south of the Simplon Pass, but that is probably coincidence.  Montenegro, the tiny Balkan state that had never been overrun by either the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, identified itself as Lehár’s Pontevedro and to its sense that it had been ridiculed in his preposterous plot there were sympathetic expressions of resentment among other southern Slav nations, even protest marches by the Croatians, then still ruled from Vienna.  In truth it seems improbable that the librettists had any particular place in mind, or that the characters could be based on real people, for The Merry Widow is resolutely operetta, frivolous and frothy, an exquisitely crafted comedy in which identity, irony and cynicism have no place, an entertainment brilliantly enhanced by music.

In The Merry Widow there is little evidence of Lehár the bandsman.  The score requires tambourine, glockenspiel and harp – some of them, with violins, on stage as well as in the pit – yet though the orchestra must offer authentic local colour when it slips into mazurkas, kolos and the polonaise, it must also be of grand opera scale, richness and range.  If there are triumphant moments of vulgarity in the can-can and gallop with which Paris is evoked, there are quieter moments when the subtle ear detects the harmonic progressions of Puccini, Lehár’s friend, when whispers of Dvořák and Debussy drift into the melody.

Lehár’s music put new life into Viennese operetta.  The genre had slipped into desuetude in the three decades since Die Fledermaus had first been played, and The Merry Widow, in opening operetta’s Silver Age, revived what had seemed doomed, giving it strength enough to survive the First World War, the consequent dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the destruction of its ancient monarchy and aristocracy, and the breakdown of the wealthy bourgeoisie of Vienna.  Hanging on to Lehár’s coat-tails were his near contemporaries Emmerich Kalman, Leopold Fall and Oscar Straus, and all acted as bridge from the operetta of the Golden Age to the American Musical of stage and cinema, its ultimate successor.  If The Merry Widow has a flaw, it is that, like much television now, it is too literal in its (musical) illustration of the shallow plot and characters, each of whom is instantly characterised, if not caricatured, by the first song of the role; Lehár never develops complexity and depth, no character has an essential soul, and no matter how seductively shimmering the strings, how brilliantly the orchestra conjures one energetic climax after another, or how dashingly the dance takes over from the song, this is entertainment at intoxicating pitch, with never a dark or melancholy moment.  Only once does the pace relent, and that is when the widow, hostess of a party at which the guests are beguiled by “authentic” Pontevedran song and dance, sings the ballad Vilja.  This tale of a woodland sprite in love with a mortal man, a slow melodic showpiece for a fine soprano with the common touch, was extraordinarily popular in Britain during the Second World War – we cannot then have known that Lehár was Hitler’s favourite composer.

Only with The Land of Smiles in 1923 did Lehár achieve success to match The Merry Widow – in this we find much the same melodic wealth.  His lesser operettas of the 1920s depended on the voice of the tenor Richard Tauber, deceptively light, lyrical, sensual, seductive, very German in timbre and perfectly suited to Lehár’s music.  “I do not sing operetta,” said Tauber, “I sing Lehár.”  He did indeed.  He lavished as much care on Lehár’s songs as on any aria by Mozart and Puccini (he was renowned as Calaf in Turandot), and the best of them were dubbed, affectionately, Tauberlieder.  With the critical failure of Lehár’s last operetta, Giuditta, in 1934 – paid the extraordinary compliment of a première in the Opera rather than the Theater an der Wien – and Tauber’s departure for London in 1937 (loathing the Nazis he became a British national and sang Lehár as entertainment to the troops), the old bandsman’s career as a composer was virtually at its end.  He remained in Austria throughout the war and was thought by many to have sympathised with the Nazis – erroneously, for his devoted wife was Jewish, but the suspicion grew from his having, after Germany’s absorption of Austria through Anschluss in 1938, composed a new overture to The Merry Widow dedicated to Hitler.

During the war there was one more serious work, Garabonciás diák, but this, the revision as a Hungarian opera of a gipsy operetta written long before in 1910, was hardly a Verdian late flowering of inspiration.  Was it a nostalgic escape from a present in which he feared for Sophie, his Jewish wife, knowing that his friend Fritz Löhner-Beda, the Jewish librettist of The Land of Smiles and Giuditta, had been put to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz while his words were still being sung on the stage of the Theater an der Wien?  Eventually, Lehár, well into his seventies, sick and increasingly blind, fled with Sophie to Switzerland in search of better medical care, and it was in Zürich in 1946 that he was reconciled with Tauber – a recording of a concert on Swiss Radio is the monument to that memorable moment.  Both men died in 1958, Tauber still almost in his prime at fifty-five, Lehár seventy-eight.

In Britain Tauber is still remembered with fondness and regret, but Lehár is forgotten – thirty eight operettas to his name, two attempts at opera, independent marches, waltzes and other dances by the dozen, sonatas, symphonic poems, even a violin concerto to remind us of his youth, and several film scores, but all forgotten here; I dare say that anyone hearing his Gold and Silver Waltz for the first time might attribute it to the composer of Die Fledermaus.  Lehár’s obscurity, I have little doubt having lived through the relevant years, is due first to a more serious error of attribution – the canard of his sympathy with Hitler – and second to an increasingly dismissive disdain in post-war decades for what we damned as “light music.”  We dig a little deeper now and find solid virtue in the operettas of Offenbach and Strauss, even in Gilbert and Sullivan; Lehár is an obvious candidate to join them on their low Olympus.  Let us hear more of him.