Lehár: Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). Franz Welser-Möst conducting soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Zurich Opera House. Arthaus Musik DVD. $29.99.
Playful and seductive, as much an ensemble play as a singers’ operetta, the 2004 Zurich Opera production of Franz Lehár’s greatest triumph is a major triumph itself, as this live recording makes clear. The stage production by Helmuth Lohner and design by Rolf Langenfass are impeccable, the singing and acting are marvelous, the cast seems genuinely to have fun with the story, and the elaborately seductive tale unfolds with genuine wit as well as sentimentality.
You might not think the production would work so well if you simply looked at the cast list. Dagmar Schellenberger, who for years has been highly accomplished in operetta, might be thought a touch old for the part of Hanna; Rodney Gilfry tends mostly toward serious roles and might not seem to have the comic touch needed for Danilo; Ute Gfrerer (Valencienne) and Piotr Beczala (Camille de Rosillon) are comparative unknowns. The one person who would seem, on the face of it, to be perfect for his part is Herbert Prikopa as Njegus – a speaking role.
Well, Prikopa is in fact marvelous, but so, by and large, are all the principals (also including Rudolf A. Hartmann, who makes Baron Mirko Zeta a fine mixture of diplomacy and buffoonery). Schellenberger’s voice remains top-notch (despite a slight wobble at the end of the Vilja song), and her interactions with Gilfry fairly crackle with intensity. Gilfry more than holds his own in a production that makes clear the relationship of the principals before Hanna’s marriage: she recognizes Danilo’s snores and he, too drunk to look up at her, knows who she is when he feels her leg. The back-and-forth repartee, both spoken and sung, is highly effective (though cutting Danilo’s kluge, kluge Reitersmann rejoinder to Hanna’s dummer verse is unfortunate). Schellenberger and Gilfry make the underlying yearning of the characters for each other abundantly clear in Act I; the audience, even knowing the story, cannot help but root for them to abandon their pride and declare themselves.
Before they do that in Act III, there are of course all sorts of complications, set to much marvelous music. The extent of the relationship between Valencienne and Camille is not as clear here as it could be made, with the result that Camille’s Wie eine Rosenknospe does not pack quite the emotional wallop that it can; and Beczala seems a touch uncomfortable signing it. Gfrerer and Beczala seem a bit ill-matched: Valencienne and Camille can easily be played as soul mates kept apart by societal convention, but in this case a surface-level flirtation seems more likely. The music, in any case, carries it off.
The dialogue sections are rather long at times, but the updates and additions to the libretto mostly play rather well: Njegus has no lenses in his glasses because the insurance company won’t pay for them, and at one point the characters proudly display and toast with Lowenbrau, “brewed in
Franz Welser-Möst keeps the action moving smartly along, and his pacing gives the singers and dancers quite a workout in an extended dance sequence introduced into Act III. But he also lets the tender sections, of which there are many, flow slowly. It is an admirable conducting job that gives the company plenty of time to fill out and wander around the wonderful sets, while still being pointed and intense when necessary (Danilo’s bitter Es waren zwei Königskinder, starting as melodrama and turning into an aria, is particularly well done – with Gilfry using his experience in serious roles to good effect). If you want a Merry Widow DVD to live with – to return to again and again for beauty of staging as well as music – you can scarcely go wrong with this one.