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'Merry Widow' Operetta: Stage Versus Screen


This is FRESH AIR. The Metropolitan Opera will be celebrating New Year's Eve with Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," one of the most beloved operettas ever written, in a new production staring soprano Renee Fleming. Later, it will be telecast in theaters worldwide.

But classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz wonders whether any stage production could ever surpass the first two movie versions. Both films are now available on DVD.


MAURICE CHEVALIER: (As Danilo, singing) I'm going to Maxim's where all the girls are dreams. Each kiss go on the wine list and mine is quite a fine list.

CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) Is she beautiful?

EVERETT HORTON: (As Ambassador Popoff) She owns 52 percent of Marshovia so she is beautiful. If you like her or not, you'll love her. This is cold-blooded patriotism. Did you ever have diplomatic relations with a woman?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing in foreign language).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Viennese operetta was originally intended for the intimacy of live theater, but the greatest incarnations of Franz Lehar's beloved "The Merry Widow" which premiered in 1905, have been on film. In 1934, Ernst Lubitsch directed a version starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier with English translations of the song lyrics by no less than Lorenz Hart of Rodgers and Hart. The film won an Oscar for art direction, but the whole look of the film is a manifestation of Lubitsch's masterly touch. Every detail is embedded with his sly sense of irony. It's a fantasy of black and white with dazzling Can-Can girls and one of the most breathtaking musical numbers ever filmed, an embassy ball with a narrow hall of mirrors endlessly multiplying the number of waltzing couples swirling through, as if they were in a glorious and terrifying dream.


SCHWARTZ: Lubitsch's adaptation is tighter, sharper, sexier and much funnier than the original operetta. In this movie, the king of the mythical country of Marshovia is afraid a wealthy young widow is going to destabilize the economy by taking her money out of the country so he orders the irresistibly dashing Captain Danilo to marry her. Danilo has already tried to make love to her, even though he has never seen her face without a mask. Unsettled by Danilo and depressed by her widowhood, she's determined to cheer up. Suddenly, her entire wardrobe, even her pet Pekingese turns miraculously from black to dazzling white and the now merry widow heads for gay Paris.


JEANETTE MACDONALD: (As Sonia, singing).

SCHWARTZ: At the famously indecorous Maxim's, Danilo mistakes the widow for one of the bistro's bevy of beauties all too eager for a one-night stand. Lubitsch gives their encounter a powerful erotic charge. Complications ensue, both hilarious and surprisingly poignant.


CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I love you, Sonia.

MACDONALD: (As Sonia) So I noticed, last night.

CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) Oh, please. I'm mad about you.

MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Everybody is. I've heard it at least 100 times tonight and everybody wants to marry me. There must be something wonderful about me. What is it that fascinates all these men? What can it be? Is it my charm? Or my beauty? Or, do you suppose it's my position?

CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) You mean your money?

MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Yes.

CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I don't know about the other men, but with me, it's strictly your money and nothing else.

MACDONALD: (As Sonia) I believe you.

CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I knew you would. That's why I said it. If you had only told me last night who you were, if I'd only known that I held in my arms the richest widow, I - what did you come to Maxim's for anyway? Oh, I see - just a rich woman looking for a thrill.

MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Goodbye, Captain.

SCHWARTZ: Finally, the two are trapped into admitting they really love each other. An earlier silent version of "The Merry Widow" from 1925 has a completely different tone. Its director, Erich von Stroheim, was not known for lighthearted comedies. This silent "Merry Widow" by necessity concentrates on the story over the music so von Stroheim invents a painful back-story about how the widow acquired her wealth.

A chorus girl spurned by Danilo's royal family, she marries a wealthy old baron, a crippled foot fetishist, who dies on their wedding night. The villain is Danilo's nasty cousin the Crown Prince, who nearly kills the Danilo in a duel over the widow and his assassination suggests that what's really behind the film's bitter irony is the first world war.

It's fascinating how many different ways Lehar's delightful music has resurfaced over the years. In Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow Of A Doubt," Joseph Cotten plays the Merry Widow Murderer and the famous waltz in a minor key becomes disturbingly sinister. Shostakovich in his grim 1940 "Symphony No. 7" which depicts the Siege of Leningrad, transforms "I'm Going To Maxim's," Lehar's jolly anthem of Parisian decadence, into a relentless and menacing march. Three years later, that same music turns up again in Bartok's "Concerto For Orchestra" where it seems to be an expression of satirical contempt for Shostakovich. So von Stroheim was prescient in his ability to see the chilling underside of Lehar's operetta. His very dark comedy and Lubitsch's brilliant musical perhaps more than any traditional stage production are what have really kept the whole operetta alive for me, each in its own way revealing something profound lurking under the trivial surface.

BIANCULLI: Lloyd Schwartz is senior classical music editor of the online journal New York Arts and teaches in the creating writing MFA program at University of Massachusetts Boston.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Not in my wildest dreams.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Our face must not be shown there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: And we are too unknown there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Joujou, Cloclo, Margot, Froufrou - we promise to be faithful until the night is through.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, as TV critic I review the new miniseries "Olive Kitteridge" starring Frances McDormand. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lloyd Schwartz