LEHÁR Die lustige Witwe (Malwitz)
The Merry Widow wasn’t born a billionairess, and before Lehár’s masterpiece was a worldwide smash – and long before it became the stuff of superstar casts and Metropolitan Opera galas – it was simply a potboiler by an unproven composer, rushed onstage with minimal rehearsal and second-hand sets to fill a gap in the Theater an der Wien’s New Year schedule. Which is by way of saying that while it’s always nice to have Schwarzkopf, Terfel or the Vienna Philharmonic, it’s possible to stage an enjoyable, idiomatic Widow that’s entirely in the spirit of the piece without a single big name in sight.
Perhaps that sounds like I’m managing expectations for this new recording, taken from live performances at the Frankfurt Opera in May and June 2018. But this is a perfectly enjoyable account, possibly closer in spirit to the piece’s light-footed, popular theatre roots than the more sumptuous classic recordings. It certainly conveys the atmosphere of a live performance, complete with audience laughter, applause, onstage thuds, a recessed and sometimes splashy chorus and some of the most raucous grisettes I’ve heard on disc.
All part of the fun, of course, and there’s only one really serious oddity. The Frankfurt director Claus Guth reassigns Camille and Valencienne’s Act 1 Hauslichkeit duet to Danilo and Hanna, and repositions it – incomprehensibly, in the absence of any printed libretto – before Danilo’s usual entrance. Don’t expect any help from the booklet note, either; a word-perfect parody of Teutonic academese which references Adorno and (I’m not joking) Samuel Beckett.
Those provisos apart, there’s plenty to enjoy, starting with bright and buoyant conducting from Joana Mallwitz. She takes care of details without overindulging them, whether Lehár’s swirling woodwind countermelodies or the quiet string slides and little splashes of harp that accompany the Vilja-Lied. As Camille and Valencienne, Martin Mitterutzner and Kateryna Kasper make a likeable couple, and if you might have hoped for a little more shine to Mitterutzner’s top notes, Kasper’s soprano has a smiling quality that gives the Pavilion duet the requisite glow.
Iurii Samoilov is perhaps a slightly woolly-sounding Danilo – which makes perfect sense in his hungover early scenes. He does smarten up a little as the story progresses, without ever cutting what you might call a dash. But he blends nicely with Marlis Petersen’s singing as Hanna; and while it’s not fair to the rest of the cast to say that she carries the show, her soft-centred tone and graceful, light-touch phrasing certainly give this performance its heart. Her Vilja has a poise and a youthful freshness that I found utterly beguiling. Hanna Glawari might be a widow but she’s no moping Marschallin, and (musically, at least) this performance never forgets to be merry.