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To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Franz Lehár’s birth this month, Francis Muzzu presents recordings of this popular masterpiece of comic satire and romance.

Lehár’s operetta, premiered in 1905, has stood the test of time magnificently: it is estimated that in its first 60 years it notched up over half a million performances, and a look at the online listings site Operabase gives over 150 more to come this year as opera houses celebrate Lehár’s 150th anniversary – and that’s before most European houses have even announced their 2020/21 seasons.

It is easy to understand why it is so popular: Lehár is profligate with his tunes, piling them upon each other. The story uses the familiar theme of a couple in love but who won’t admit it (apparently a trope known as Belligerent Sexual Tension – who knew?) But it has already worked in Much Ado About Nothing and Pride and Prejudice and went on to underpin the plots of Gone with the Wind, Grease, Star Wars and, I am reliably informed, The Princess Diaries 2 (but I must stress just the sequel – apparently don’t waste your time with the first film).

Recordings have been very kind to the Widow. The original Hanna and Danilo, Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, recorded their arias and duets the following year, 1906; and in 1907 the Berlin cast recorded most of the operetta – but despite both having been issued on CD I can find no trace of them for purchase. Pretty much any of the recordings listed here will provide pleasure, and for most people it will all be down to the casting of Hanna Glawari, the Merry Widow herself. I incline to favour a younger singer – remember that Mizzi Günther was twenty six when she created the role, and the gorgeous Lily Elsie, who was London’s first Hanna two years later, had just turned twenty one. I think a feisty younger woman with a fortune of twenty million adds a frisson of excitement for 1905 (though twenty million what we are never told). A more mature Hanna can stray into Carol Channing territory, sashaying down a staircase in a dazzle of diamonds and blur of marabou. But don’t forget a Merry Widow hat the size of Pontevedro itself, a craze inspired by the operetta. A humorous postcard of the time showed a woman teetering on the edge of a skyscraper and joshed: When the elevator’s crowded What’s the use to wait for that? Just make a parachute Of your Merry Widow hat.

My advice – just jump and enjoy!

1938
William Reid (Highlights on Spotify)
This is a souvenir of a smash hit production by the Sadlers Wells Opera Company in 1958. June Bronhill was famed as the Widow, appearing in over 200 performances, but though her soprano is highly technically accomplished it sounds lighter than that of her Valencienne, Marion Lowe. Her fast vibrato is intrusive, reminiscent of Adriana Caselotti’s pipings as Disney’s Snow White. It seems that the microphone does her no favours and that live, the voice had more refulgence; other recordings show a voice with a more solid core and attractive tone. Thomas Round is a fine tenor Danilo. But the best performer is William MCALPINE as Camille, who really does sound enthusiastic, and whose soaring tenor enjoys Lehár’s sweeping phrases. William Reid’s conducting has pace and style. However, the Septet sounds like a particularly camp little group having a gossip while sipping their gin and Dubonnets. The whole cast enunciates in a way that seems a lost art today.

1953 - OPERA NOW CHOICE
Otto Ackermann Naxos (CD)
A classic recording, albeit recorded in mono, since remastered – and unfortunately littered with cuts, sometimes a line or two, but at other times whole numbers are missing. Ackermann, whose name sounds possibly Austrian or German, was in fact Romanian. He was a good friend of Lehár’s and it shows. He brings a fabulous balance of schmaltz and propulsion to the piece, just the right touch. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings her first recorded Hanna –a performance of allure, wit and sexiness, all tied up in her quick-toned soprano. It is incredibly beguiling. She also suggests her humble origins and isn’t too grand to join in a knees-up. Emmy Loose is a charming Valencienne and Nicolai Gedda about the best Camille, young and ardent and vocally eff ortless, so it’s a pity that they lose so much of their music. Eric Kunz’s Danilo mixes song and speech, transposes down, and sounds like a charming elderly roué, think Maurice Chevalier, though in fact was only in his early forties when recorded here. The supporting cast is understated and strong, and the Septet is a hoot.

1962
Lovro von Matačic Warner Classics/EMI
Schwarzkopf’s second recording, and the voice has a slightly more brittle quality at times, though still retains its inherent beauty of tone. She has a reputation in this recording for having perhaps over-emphasised the text and phrasing; maybe so, but I would rather have too much than too little. She presents a more knowing Hanna, understandably, for she was approaching fifty at the time and brings a touch of seen-it-all-before to the role. Hanny Steffek is also a more knowing Valencienne than most and very well sung too. Eberhard Wächter is a strong contender as Danilo, his baritone juicy, but he matches Schwarzkopf for overegging the pudding at times. Gedda repeats his Camille, still in wonderful voice but sounding more heroic of tone and, like Schwarzkopf, simply older. The Septet sounds a real booze- up! Von Matačic’s conducting is balanced neatly between sobriety and fun, but there are still appreciable cuts.

1988
Richard Bonynge (Highlights) Eloquence Classics
Be careful what you wish for. I shouldn’t have made the jibe about Douglas Gamley earlier, for here actually is Lehár’s 1947 Overture orchestrated by Gamley for Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, in all its unabashed and vulgar glory. Following which, this disc is not a success. To call Sutherland plummy would be kind because she is actually pretty wobbly, with that slightly woozy drunk quality her voice took on in its lower reaches in her later career. Thankfully the top, as ever, is ringing. Her Hanna is a game sort, up for a laugh but hardly alluring. Werner Krenn doesn’t make much impression as Danilo. Valerie Masterson and John Brecknock sound sweetly straightlaced as Valencienne and Camille and they sing the English translation clearly. Otherwise it is all a jolly romp. We’re certainly not off to Chez Maxim’s and Lolo, Dodo, Jou-Jou. It’s less of a night out in Gay Paree, more of a night out in Penge.

1994
John Eliot Gardiner Deutsche Grammophon
Gardiner has restored almost every cut in this highly regarded recording – also, if you’re buying it on CD it has the bonus of still fitting on one disc. Plus his conducting is idiomatic and well-judged. Alas, it is undermined by Cheryl Studer’s palid Hanna. In the attempt to provide understated sophistication she has thrown the baby out with the bathwater and become curiously faceless. Studer doesn’t even croon her way through the music; it’s The Whispering Widow. A particular shame as Bo Skovhus is one of the more vibrant Danilos, rich-toned and lively. Barbara Bonney and Rainer Trost build up quite a head of steam as Valencienne and Camille – we should just draw the curtain and let them get on with it. It must be said that Bonney sounds a bit too posh for these grisettes – they sound as though they would make mincemeat of her. Bryn Terfel is luxurious casting as Zeta.

2001
Erich Kunzel Naxos (DVD)
This film stars someone with the right blend of sophistication, good looks and oomph, with a great voice and excellent stage presence. Unfortunately it’s not Hanna but Danilo. Bo Skovhus has a whale of a time and just about avoids going too far over the top in this performance, filmed, perhaps unsurprisingly, in San Francisco. His Hanna is our third Australian to sing the role in English, Yvonne Kenny: she has a rich soprano and elegance of manner, but she is strained towards the top (which she disguises with some clever phrasing) and is no great shakes as an actress, being rather arch. Angelika Kirchschlager and Gregory Turay are an attractive Valencienne and Camille, both vocally and visually. The cast works excellently as an ensemble, much fun is had, and Lotfi Mansouri’s production is extremely traditional in its lavish sets and gorgeous costumes. The audience obviously enjoys the new dialogue and the Broadway feel to the show.

2018
Joana Mallwitz Oehms Classics
A well performed and recorded Widow, conducted with vigour, perhaps a little too much at times, by Joana Mallwitz, and recorded live in Frankfurt. Marlis Petersen is a good Hanna, but despite being renowned for her dramatic intensity it doesn’t come across in spades here. Iurii Samoilov and Martin Mitterrutzner make an elegantly-sung Danilo and Camille, but once again, slightly faceless. So Kateryna Kasper’s Valencienne takes the honours. The booklet photos show an interesting a shame it wasn’t production, filmed.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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