The Merry Widow Synopsis

The Story of Franz Lehár's 3 Act Opera

American soprano Renee Fleming (as 'Hanna Glawari') performs at the final dress rehearsal prior to the premiere of the new Metropolitan Opera/Susan Stroman production of Franz Lehar's 'The Merry Widow' ('Die Lustige Witwe') at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, New York, December 29, 2014.
American soprano Renee Fleming (as 'Hanna Glawari') performs at the final dress rehearsal prior to the premiere of the new Metropolitan Opera/Susan Stroman production of Franz Lehar's 'The Merry Widow' ('Die Lustige Witwe') at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, New York, December 29, 2014. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Composer

Franz Lehár (April 30, 1870 – October 24, 1948)

German Title

Die lustige Witwe 

Librettists & History

Viktor Léon (1858-1940) and Leo Stein (1861-1921) worked in collaboration to write the story to Franz Lehár's operetta, The Merry Widow.  The men based the libretto on Henri Meilhac's comedic play, L'attaché d'ambassade (The Embassy Attaché) after Stein attended one of its many successful performances.

 Believing the piece would make an excellent opera, they updated the play's setting and made a few plot changes.  Along with their friend, manager of the Theatre on Der Wein, they hired Richard Heuberger who had previous success at the theatre with his, Der Opernball.  Heuberger presented a draft of the score, but it did not meet their expectations and he quickly dropped out of the project.  At the suggestion from several of the theatre's staff members, Franz Lehár was asked to write the music.  Léon and Stein were hesitant he could capture what they had envisioned, but changed their minds when Lehár submitted his first piece of music.  They allowed him to complete the score, and roughly 2 to 3 months later, Lehár was finished.  Despite the singers and musicians expressing their approval for the music, the theatre held reservations and asked him to withdraw his score.  Lehár steadfastly refused and the opera was premiered at the Theatre on Der Wein on December 30, 1905.

 With little rehearsal time, the first few weeks of performances were not spectacular, but the opera managed to generate a steady (and increasing) audience with each passing performance.  It swiftly gained favor and earned high reviews.  Over 100 years later, according to OperabaseThe Merry Widow was the world's 23rd most performed opera during the 2013-2014 season.

Notable Arias

Characters

  • Hanna Glawari, a wealthy widow
  • Count Danilo Danilovitsch, First Secretary of the Pontevedrian embassy 
  • Baron Mirko Zeta, the Ambassador
  • Valencienne, Baron Zeta's wife
  • Camille, Count de Rosillon, French attaché to the embassy
  • Njegus, the Embassy Secretary
  • Kromow, Pontevedrian embassy counsellor
  • Olga, Kromow's wife

Plot Setting

The Merry Widow takes place at the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris, France in 1905.

The Merry Widow Synopsis

Act 1
Baron Mirko Zeta (the ambassador from the poor Baltic country Pontevedro - a fictionalized Montenegro), greets his guests as they arrive to his ball held at their embassy in Paris, celebrating the birthday of the Grand Duke.  Baron Zeta's wife, Valencienne, is approached by Count Camille de Rosillon (the embassy's French attaché) who confesses that he is in love with her by writing those three little words on her fan.  Though happy to receive the attention, she graciously lets him down by telling him she is a respectable wife.  They continue to flirt, but in the midst of the ball she loses her fan.

 Meanwhile, her husband is preoccupied with the arrival of Hanna Glawari, who was recently widowed.  Her wealthy husband left her with an incredible fortune valued at $20 million.  Baron Zeta worries that while in Paris, Hanna will fall in love with a Parisian man and move her fortune out of their nearly-bankrupt country.  Baron Zeta has devised a plan to introduce Hanna to Count Danilo Danilovitsch, but he doesn't know that Danilo and Hanna were to be married once.  It was Danilo's uncle who put a stop to the wedding after voicing concerns that the pair was not a suitable match - at the time Hanna had no money to her name.  Danilo, who grew to resent Hanna and her wealth, scoffs at Baron Zeta's plan for him (though he secretly still has feelings for her).  Kromow, the embassy counsellor, finds the missing fan and believes it to be his own wife's.

 Worried his wife may be having an affair, he brings the fan to Baron Zeta who agrees to deliver the fan back to Kromow's wife.  Valencienne tries persuading him to let her deliver it, but he refuses.  On his way to Olga, Baron Zeta meets Danilo and pleads with him to marry Hanna out of duty to their country.  Danilo's resolve is unchanged, but agrees to help take out Hanna's foreign suitors.  When the entertainers announce that the ladies will get to choose their partner for the next dance, men of all types line up hoping to be chosen by Hanna, but it is Danilo whom she picks.  He frowns and declares that he will sell his position to dance with her for 10,000 francs and donate the proceeds to charity.  None of the men can afford his price and they disperse into the ballroom.  Realizing he is the only man left to dance with her, he finally gives in.  Hanna is disgusted by his behavior and turns him away.  When the music begins, he dances alone until Hanna becomes annoyed with that and joins him in the dance.

Act 2
The following day, Hanna hosts a party of her own in full style of the Pontevedrian culture.  After singing a few songs, Hanna informs Baron Zeta that she has hired a group of female cabaret dancers from Maxim's for Danilo, knowing that he frequents Maxim's regularly.  This gives Baron Zeta hope that maybe Hanna and Danilo will fall in love again.  When Danilo arrives, Baron Zeta and the embassy secretary, Njegus, pull him aside and all agree to meet later in the garden's summer house to discuss the identity of the mysterious fan.

 When they leave, Valencienne and Count Camille begin flirting once more.   After a lengthy conversation, Valencienne decides it would be a good time to stop their relationship.  She suggests that he should marry Hanna, to which he reluctantly agrees on the condition that she meet him in the garden one last time to say their goodbyes.

At dusk, Valencienne and Count Camille meet in the garden.  They spot the fan with his note "I love you" written on it and he asks her if he could keep it as a memento.  She lets him keep it, but not before writing "I am a respectable wife" beside his love note.  The count convinces her to step inside the summer home so they may say goodbye to each other privately.  Njegus is the first to arrive to the meeting.  He enters the house, but quickly exits when he discovers Valencienne and the Count.  He locks the door behind him.  When Baron Zeta arrives with Danilo, the Baron looks through the door's keyhole to solve the mystery of the fan's owner.  To his shock, he recognizes his wife.  Without catching the baron's attention, Njegus asks Hanna to trade places with Valencienne.  She happily obliges and secretly switches places with Valencienne.  When the front door is unlocked, Hanna walks out arm-in-arm with Count Camille while announcing their engagement.  Baron Zeta is both confused and upset that Hanna's money will be staying in France.  Danilo is unable to hide his contempt and recounts a story of a princess who ruined her life by cheating on her prince out of spite.

 He angrily shuffles back to the party just in time to watch the girls from the cabaret.  Hanna is delighted by Danilo's outburst; she knows that he still loves her.

Act 3
Hanna hosts another party, this time in a no-holds-barred theme of Maxim's cabaret.  She has even brought in all the dancers (grisettes) from the cabaret.  Valencienne arrives dressed as a grisette and dances in merriment.  Hanna greets Danilo at the door who is surprised to learn the reason why none of the girls were at Maxim's is because they were all at Hanna's.  Having received notification from Pontevedro that the country will collapse if it loses Hanna's account, he asks her out of loyalty to their country not to marry Camille.  She tells him it was all a ruse - she was only helping a faithful woman save her marriage.  Overjoyed with her news, he begins to confess his love to her but hesitates after thinking about her wealth.  Njegus enters the room with the fan he picked up at the summer house and Baron Zeta finally recognizes it to be his wife's.  He argues with her and threatens divorce, then shouts that maybe he should be the one to marry Hanna.  Hanna states that she will lose all of her wealth the moment she remarries.  Danilo's eyes widen and he immediately proposes to her.  She happily accepts and points out that she will only lose her money because it will become property of her husband.  Valencienne retrieves the fan from Njegus and presents it to her husband, drawing attention to her handwritten response on the fan - I am a respectable wife.  Everyone joins in celebration and parties for the remainder of the night.

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