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Victor Léon (1858- 1940) the librettist whose talents produced such enduringly charming froth as Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Strauss’s Wiener Blut, has been given a weighty historical analysis by the journalist Barbara Denscher. Léon also co-wrote the libretto for Richard Heuberger’s The Opera Ball, remembered for its seductive waltz duet ‘Geh’n wir in’s Chambre séparée’.

Charm and seduction must have played a major role in Léon’s survival, professionally and posthumously. Born Victor Hirschfeld in Senica, western Slovakia, Léon would have been deported to a concentration camp as a non- Aryan during the war years were it not for the personal protection of Lehár, whose music was admired by Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, during the Fascist years Léon’s name disappeared from stagings and screen adaptationsof The Merry Widow and other works, like that of his co-author Leo Stein (born Rosenstein).

To ensure his posterity, Léon sensibly confided his personal archive of documents to his lover, an Aryan Viennese lady who preserved them. Now held at the Vienna Library in City Hall, this archive reveals that not all of the several dozen operetta librettos by Léon were immortal hits. At the Carlstheater, Vienna in 1889, his Capitän Wilson was a flop, possibly to its unfaithfulness as an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard. It added five numbers not by Sullivan, enraging Sir Arthur and leading him to promote a more faithful production in Berlin later that year, entitled Der Königsgardist (The Royal Guardsman).

Yet as Denscher suggests, the real reason for the Vienna staging’s failure might not have been infidelity, but rather that the traumatised Austrian public was little inclined to ‘have a song to sing, O!’ after the contemporaneous murder-suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and his mistress at the Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in the Vienna Woods.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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