- Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow: Revisiting Pontevedro*
Franz Lehár’s operetta Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) premiered in 1905 in Vienna at the famed Theater an der Wien and gradually attained great popularity. The setting of the operetta was a fictional country called Pontevedro, reminiscent of the principality of Montenegro. The libretto portrayed the ethnic otherness as compelling by accentuating the cultural diversity in contrast to the Viennese milieu at large. Yet, the skillfully written libretto, celebrating most of all romance, and the equally effervescent musical score underlined the human bonds of shared aspirations, emotions, and ethical values, fostering acceptance and superseding any superfluous differences. In an oblique way it reflected also an appreciation of the manifest presence of the Slavic population within the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to the reviewer from the Volksblatt, the premiere achieved a deserved success most of all “thanks to the magnificent music, the intelligent book, and to the excellent production.”1
The operetta starts with the opening ball in the Embassy of Pontevedro. The glittering stage setting was enhanced by the exceptional stylized gold-embroidered ethnic costumes worn by the protagonists Mizzi Gűnther and Louis Treumann. Their presence and engaged musical interpretation was duly noted and eventually attained the admiration of the public and critics alike.
For promotional reasons the young composer Franz Lehár was photographed alongside the lead singers Gűnther and Treumann (Fig. 1 following p. 268). This group picture captures the distinctive appearance of the artists as compared to the sleek appearance of the composer, dressed in an elegant suit and sporting the fashionable smooth hairstyle of the day. He is leaning slightly towards the famed artists, as if attesting to his pride in creating real [End Page 259] human beings under a semblance of visual alterity in dress and appearance. The whole production stressed an appreciation for a different, distant tradition.
The librettists had considerable knowledge of Montenegro, its history, customs, epic poetry, and the real and mythical figures of Balkan folklore, including the ruling royal dynasty, Petrović-Njegoš. Most of all, the popular figure of the dashing heir apparent, Prince Danilo, alluded to in Treumann’s stage role, provided additional interest to the plot.
True to the perception of their roles, both Gűnther and Treumann carefully chose their stage attire, suggestive of traditional Montenegrin costumes. Gűnther chose an embroidered long shirt and a bodice under a graceful sleeveless coat. Her dark, luxurious hair was skillfully turned up and adorned by a small cap. Treumann wore traditional knee-high breeches held by a colorful sash. He sported a Western-style shirt and a tie under a gold-braided vest and sleeveless jacket. His mustache and curly hair were styled with care and he achieved a stunning likeness to the real Prince Danilo. These individual choices pointed to the awareness of another cultural tradition as well as to the studious effort to bring credence to their respective stage roles. Lehár’s melodies provided another link to the distinctly Slavic intonations that he introduced in this masterful score.
Lehár was born in 1870 in the historic twin cities of Komarom-Komarno, on the border between Hungary and Slovakia.2 He received his higher musical education in Prague. He entered the Music Academy in 1881 and continued his advanced education until graduation in 1888. His violin teacher was Anton Bennewitz, who was also the rector of the academy. It is remarkable that he was fortunate enough to have among his teachers the world-famous composer Antonin Dvořak. Dvořak taught composition, and it is very likely that his own predilection for exquisite melodic inflection based on folkloric elements influenced his young student. Dvořak appreciated Lehár and praised his early compositions. Later on, Lehár became known to a great extent thanks to his unforgettable arias and skillful orchestration, which at times were reminiscent of Slavic melodic lore.
Although the leading cast and the operatic ensemble fully embraced the new operetta, the public was slow in accepting the new production. Revenues continued to be modest. The management of the Theater an der Wien was concerned, and even...