The Merry Widow – Franz Lehár
The Merry Widow (German: Die lustige Witwe) is an operetta by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár. The librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, based the story – concerning a rich widow, and her countrymen’s attempt to keep her money in the principality by finding her the right husband – on an 1861 comedy play, L’attaché d’ambassade (The Embassy Attaché) by Henri Meilhac.
The operetta has enjoyed extraordinary international success since its 1905 premiere in Vienna and continues to be frequently revived and recorded. Film and other adaptations have also been made. Well-known music from the score includes the “Vilja Song”, “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” (“You’ll Find Me at Maxim’s”), and the “Merry Widow Waltz”.
The embassy in Paris of the poverty-stricken Balkan principality 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 thereby keep her fortune in the country, saving Pontevedro 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. It emerges they were in love before her marriage, but his uncle interrupted their romance because Hanna had absolutely nothing to her name. 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 embassy counsellor Kromow, who jealously fears the fan belongs to his wife, Olga, and gives it 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 accede to the Baron’s demand, Danilo offers to eliminate any non-Pontevedrian suitors as a compromise.
The “Ladies’ Choice” dance is about to start, and all the men hover around Hanna, hoping to be her choice of partner. Valencienne hatches an idea to get Camille to marry Hanna so that he will cease to be a temptation for her, and therefore volunteers Camille as a partner for Hanna in 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 offers his dance with Hanna for sale for ten thousand francs, with the proceeds to benefit charity. This extinguishes the interest of the would-be suitors in the dance. After they have left, Danilo attempts to dance with Hanna. Annoyed at his previous evasive maneuver, she refuses to dance with him. Nonchalantly, Danilo begins to waltz by himself, eventually wearing down Hanna’s resistance, and she falls into his arms.
The next evening, everyone is dressed in Pontevedrian clothing, at a party in the garden at Hanna’s house, to celebrate the birthday of the Grand Duke in Pontevedrian fashion. Hanna entertains by singing an old Pontevedrian song, “Vilja” (“Es lebt’ eine Vilja, ein Waldmägdelein” – “There lived a Vilja, a maid of the woods”). Meanwhile, 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 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”. Camille persuades Valencienne to enter the same pavilion – in which Danilo, the Baron and Njegus had arranged to meet – so that they can say their goodbyes in private. 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 to see what lovers may be inside 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 (“Es waren zwei Königskinder”) 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 and rejoices among the general despair.
Act 3 is set at a theme party in Hanna’s ballroom, which she has decorated as Maxim’s, complete with Maxim’s grisettes (can-can dancers). Valencienne, who has dressed herself as a grisette, entertains the guests (“Ja, wir sind es, die Grisetten”). 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 Camille, 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: “Ich bin eine anständige Frau” (“I’m a respectable wife”); and all ends happily.