The Merry Widow (German: Die lustige Witwe) is a romantic musical comedy or operetta by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár. The librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, based the story — concerning a rich widow, Hanna Glawari, and her attempt to find a husband — on an 1861 comedy play, L'Attache d'ambassade (The Ambassador's Attache) by Henri Meilhac.
The operetta was first performed at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 30 December 1905. Well-known music from the score includes the songs "Vilja", "You'll Find Me at Maxim's", and "The Merry Widow Waltz".
List of characters
The Embassy in Paris of the poverty-stricken Grand Duchy of Pontevedro is holding a ball to celebrate the birthday of the sovereign, the Grand Duke. Hanna Glawari, who has inherited twenty million francs from her late husband, is to be a guest at the ball and the ambassador, Baron Zeta, wants to ensure that she will marry another Pontevedrian and keep her fortune in the country, so that Pontevedro would be saved from bankruptcy. Baron Zeta has in mind Count Danilo Danilovitsch, the First Secretary of the embassy, but his plans are not going well. Danilo is not at the party, so Zeta sends Njegus, the embassy secretary, to fetch him from Maxim's.
Danilo finally arrives and meets Hanna. She encourages his attentions, recognising him as the young soldier who had courted her years ago before his uncle interrupted their romance. Although they still love each other, Danilo refuses to court Hanna because of her fortune — and Hanna vows she will not marry him until he says "I love you".
Meanwhile, Baron Zeta's wife Valencienne has been flirting with the French attaché to the embassy, Count Camille de Rosillon, who writes "I love you" on her fan. Valencienne puts off Camille's advances, saying that she is a respectable wife. However, they lose the incriminating fan, which is found by Kromow (who jealously fears that the fan belongs to his wife, Olga), who then gives the fan to Baron Zeta. Not recognising Valencienne's fan, Baron Zeta decides to return the fan to Olga, in spite of Valencienne's desperate offers to take the fan and return it, herself.
On his way to see Olga, the Baron meets Danilo, and his diplomatic mission takes precedence over the fan. The Baron orders Danilo to marry Hanna. Refusing to concede to the Baron's demands, Danilo offers to eliminate any non-Pontevedrian suitors as a compromise.
The "Ladies' Choice" dance is about to start, and all the men are hovering around Hanna, hoping to be her choice of partner for the dance. Valencienne has decided to get Camille to marry Hanna so that he will no longer tempt her (Valencienne) to stray. Valencienne therefore volunteers Camille as a partner to Hanna for her "Ladies' Choice" dance. Danilo goes to the ballroom to round up some of the other ladies to claim dances with the hopeful suitors of Hanna. Even after the ladies have made their choices, there are still some suitors left behind. Hanna chooses the one man who is apparently not interested in dancing with her — Danilo. Danilo refuses to dance, but claims the dance anyway. He puts the dance up for sale for ten thousand francs, with the proceeds of the sale to go to charity. This eliminates the interest of the would-be suitors in the dance. After the suitors have left, Danilo attempts to dance with Hanna. Hanna, annoyed at his treatment of her choice of him for "Ladies' Choice", refuses to dance with him. Eventually, Danilo wears down Hanna's resistance, and the Act finishes with the two dancing in each other's arms.
Act II is set at a party in the garden at Hanna's house, to celebrate the birthday of the Grand Duke in Pontevedrian fashion, and everybody is dressed in Pontevedrian clothing. Baron Zeta fears that Camille is a threat to his plan for Hanna to marry a Pontevedrian. Still not recognising the fan as Valencienne's, the Baron orders Danilo to find out the identity of its owner, whom he assumes to be Camille's married lover. A meeting is arranged between Baron Zeta, Danilo and Njegus, to discuss the identity of the owner of the fan and also the problem with regard to the widow — with the meeting to be held that evening in Hanna's garden pavilion. Hanna sees the fan, and thinks the message on it is Danilo's declaration of love for her, which he denies. Danilo's inquiries about the identity of the owner of the fan result in revelations of the details of the infidelities of some of the wives of Embassy personnel, but do not reveal the identity of the owner of the fan.
That evening, Camille and Valencienne meet in the garden. Valencienne continues to resist Camille's advances, declaring that they must part. Camille begs for a keepsake, and discovers the fan, which Danilo had accidentally left behind, after his inquiries. Camille begs Valencienne to let him keep the fan as the keepsake, and Valencienne agrees, after writing "I'm a highly respectable wife" on the fan (in response to Camille's earlier written declaration of "I love you"). Eventually, Camille persuades Valencienne to enter the pavilion with him, so that they can say their goodbyes in private (the same pavilion in which Danilo, the Baron and Njegus had arranged to meet). Njegus, who arrives first for the meeting, discovers that Camille is in the pavilion with Valencienne. Njegus locks the door to the pavilion when Danilo and Baron Zeta arrive, and delays their entry to the pavilion. The Baron peeps through the keyhole, and is upset when he recognises his own wife. Njegus arranges with Hanna to change places with Valencienne. Camille leaves the pavilion followed by Hanna, confounding the Baron when they appear. Hanna announces that she is to marry Camille, leaving the Baron distraught at the thought of losing the Pontevedrian millions — and Valencienne distraught at losing Camille. Danilo is furious and tells the story of a Princess who cheated on her Prince — and then storms off to seek the distractions at Maxim's. Hanna realises that his anger at the announcement of her engagement shows that Danilo loves her.
Act III is set at a theme party in Hanna's ballroom, which she has decorated as Maxim's, complete with their grisettes. Valencienne, who has dressed herself as a grisette, entertains the guests. When Danilo arrives, having found the real Maxim's empty, he tells Hanna to give up Camille for the sake of the country. Much to Danilo's delight, Hanna tells him that she was never engaged to Camiille, but that she was protecting the reputation of a married woman. Danilo is ready to declare his love for Hanna, and is on the point of doing so when he remembers her money, and stops himself. When Njegus produces the fan, which he had picked up earlier, Baron Zeta suddenly remembers that the fan belongs to Valencienne. Baron Zeta swears to divorce his wife and marry the widow himself, but Hanna tells him that she loses her fortune if she remarries. Hearing this, Danilo confesses his love for her and asks Hanna to marry him, and Hanna triumphantly points out that she will lose her fortune only because it will become the property of her husband. Valencienne produces the fan and assures Baron Zeta of her fidelity by reading out what she had replied to Camille's declaration: "I'm a highly respectable wife"; and all ends happily.
Chappell and Glocken
Die lustige Witwe was subjected to many revisions during translation and adaptation in the early 1900s. For instance, the 1907 London production, out of diplomacy, renamed many of the characters partly to avoid offense to Montenegro, where the royal family's surname was Njegus, the crown prince named Danilo, and Zeta was the principal founding state.
Different versions of the score have been published by two different publishing companies. One is the Dover edition of the 1907 Chappell & Co., London score, with character and place-names altered from their names in the original German.
The other, Glocken Verlag Ltd, London, published two different English translation editions in 1958. One English-language libretto is by Phil Park, which was adapted and arranged by Ronald Hanmer. The other English-language libretto, by Christoper Hassall, was based on the edition by Ludwig Doblinger, Vienna. The former edition is said to be a "new version" with "orchestration carefully arranged" for modest or large orchestras. The 1958 version is one whole-tone lower. In the 1907 edition, Camille sings a high C in the "Rosebud Romance", instead of B flat. The Danilo and Sonia/Hanna/Anna humming of the waltz theme becomes a chorus number in the 1958 score, and the 1907 ending of the "Rosebud Romance" is sung mostly in unison rather than as a conversation. In the Glocken versions, Hanna is usually known as Anna.
German and French
The original German version and the French version differ. Act III of the German version is as described here, where Hanna sets up a version of Maxim's at her home. Act III of the French version is set in the actual Maxim's.
The Operettvilág Ensemble of Budapest, Hungary, which specialises in presenting operetta in its most authentic form and language, made an international tour in 2003 with a traditional production of the operetta in the original German.
Essgee Entertainment staged productions of The Merry Widow in capital cities around Australia during 1998 and 1999.
A special prologue was added, featuring a narrative, and ballet dancers in silhouette in the roles of the younger Anna (the Glocken translation, where Anna was the widow's name, was used for this production) and Danilo, as an introduction to their earlier romance. The narration was by Jon English.
The Essgee Entertainment production opened in Brisbane in 1998, with Jeffrey Black as "Danilo", Helen Donaldson as "Anna", Simon Gallaher as "Camille", and Susan Dunn as "Valencienne". In some performances, during the production's Brisbane run, Jason Barry-Smith appeared as "Danilo".
In Melbourne in 1999, John O'May appeared as "Danilo", Marina Prior as "Hanna", Simon Gallaher as "Camille" and Helen Donaldson as "Valencienne".
On a note of trivia, the Essgee Entertainment productions in Brisbane and Melbourne used two different English translations of the operetta.
Sir Robert Helpmann adapted the operetta's plot scenario in creating his three act ballet, while John Lanchbery adapted the operetta's music, as well as composing other music, for the ballet. The Merry Widow, was first performed in 1975 by the Australian Ballet Company.
There have been three major film versions of The Merry Widow, all in English, and all produced by MGM. None of the three film versions use the same plot, although all three use the Lehar score. The 1925 version, though is a silent film, so the songs, quite naturally, are never sung. The two sound versions each use a different set of lyrics. The 1934 version features lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and the 1952 one has lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.
The 1925 version starred Mae Murray and John Gilbert, and was directed by Erich von Stroheim. It was notable for introducing the subject of foot fetishism into the quite innocent original operetta.
The 1934 version is one of the most famous and successful film musicals of all time. It stars Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, and was directed by Ernst Lubitsch in his usual sophisticated style. All three had been brought over from Paramount especially for the film, which, despite the Hays Code that had just gone into effect, was full of Lubitsch's usual double entendres.
The 1952 film version was made in Technicolor and was a notable failure both critically and financially. It starred Lana Turner (whose singing voice was dubbed by Trudy Erwin) and Fernando Lamas, who not only did most of the singing, but was even given the song "Vilja". This was the only version of the operetta, on stage or screen, to make the widow an American showgirl.