PBS To Present New Adaptation
Of "The Merry Widow" Opera
Next to Jackie 0, she’s the most famous widow of the 20th century. She inspired hats, an agonizingly chic corset, perfumes, cigarettes, cocktails. She was immortalized in three Hollywood films, and no less than Ingmar Bergman wanted to make it four — with Barbra Streisand(!). Most importantly, thanks to Franz Lehar’s voluptuous, insinuating melodies, she transformed the simple waltz into sheer musical seduction.
She is, of course, The Merry Widow, the glamorous and very rich Anna Glawari, who bewitches anew in Wendy Wasserstein’s new San Francisco Opera adaptation of the operetta next Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Thirteen/WNET New York’s GREAT PERFORMANCES. Yvonne Kenny sings the title role, with Bo Skovhus as her dashing — if initially uncooperative — Count Danilo. Erich Kunzel conducts the San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Recorded in performance at SFO’s War Memorial Opera House, the telecast airs in stereo simulcast where available. The English lyrics are by Christopher Hassall, and Ted and Deena Puffer. But the music, particularly in 3/4 time, remains pure Lehar.
Indeed, The Merry Widow is a study in flirtation, thanks to its composer’s gift for seductive melodies. "The Merry Widow Waltz" is arguably the second most famous waltz ever written ("The Blue Danube" takes top honors) - and for a rich orchestral palette. Employing a full-size orchestra — an operetta first and a long way from the standard pit band — Lehar brings in harp, glockenspiel, even tambourine to complement quadruple woodwinds and shimmering strings. No surprise here that one hears echoes of Debussy and Richard Strauss.
The work’s plot is set in the City of Light in 1905. It was adapted by Victor Leon and Leo Stein from Henry Meilhac’s L’Attache d’Ambassade. Like most glamorous tales it revolves around money — Anna’s 50 million, in this case. Count Danilo, of the mythical Balkan state of Pontevedro, is ordered to court the rich widow, lest her millions be lost to the national bank. Reluctant at first, he soon finds he is wooing the lady for herself and not her money.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, writing popular music theater for a wide audience and making millions in the bargain, Franz Lehar was a true product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the son of a military bandmaster. Born in Komdrom, Hungary, in 1870, he was one of the most famous composers of his time, and if his later works never reached the popularity of The Widow - versions in at least 25 languages followed the Vienna premiere, they were still performed all round the world, including The Count of Luxemberg (1909), The Land of Smiles (1929), and his last major work, Giuditta (1934), which premiered at the Vienna State Opera.