About this Recording
8.111007 - LEHAR: Merry Widow (The) (Schwartzkopf, Kunz, Gedda) (1953)

Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe)

The year 2005 marks the centenary of the première of The Merry Widow, first given at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 30th December 1905. The success of the new work was to change the destiny of Franz Lehár almost overnight. The work was given throughout Europe, in Britain and the United States, breaking boxoffice records and proving an overwhelming hit with audiences. It has been filmed, recorded, made into a full-length ballet, even an ice show. It has remained the most popular operetta ever written. Within two years a complete recording, comprising 32 single sides, was made: an extraordinary undertaking for the time. As the composer later wrote: ‘I think an operetta should never lose contact with human feeling and ideas. This is the secret of its impressiveness which, arousing emotion, is more profound, serious and purer than the effectiveness of what is nothing but a show.’

What of the principal characters in this sophisticated intrigue? The heroine Hanna Glawari is a young, pretty, charming and vivacious widow, while the hero Danilo is an aristocratic debonair playboy with a taste for wine and an eye for women. He is also an attaché of the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris. The Ambassador is the middle-aged, slightly pompous Baron Zeta, who is also a bit of a rogue. His wife is the naïvely amorous Valencienne who is loved by the ardent young Frenchman Camille de Rosillon. Add some more diplomats, and spice with grisettes from the famous Café Maxim, stir and the ingredients are just perfect.

Prior to the advent of the LP disc half a century ago, musical taste saw the operatic snob perceiving operetta as rather a low-brow and inconsequential form of entertainment, more suited to amateur groups. True, The Merry Widow was popular but it was not really a substantial stage work. What in no little way changed this attitude was the release of this particular recording in the summer of 1953. The use of internationally renowned singers, a symphony orchestra of the highest quality and a conductor who really understood the idiom at last showed the true quality of this most popular work. The mastermind behind the project was the record producer Walter Legge (1906-1979). He had long wanted to record complete Viennese operettas but felt the constraints of the old 78 rpm medium were not suited to continuous music. It was following the introduction of the LP format that he could now achieve his goal. He would supervise this Merry Widow, The Land of Smiles, Vienna Blood, The Gypsy Baron, A Night in Venice and Die Fledermaus over a period of just two years, all proving to be landmark recordings.

This recording uses the concert overture that Lehár wrote for and dedicated to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in April 1940. It is much more richly scored and is slightly at odds with the composer’s musical language of 35 years earlier. Nevertheless, we do hear all the principal themes from the operetta, albeit in a richly embroidered form. It must also be pointed out that the following items have been omitted from this recording: the Valencienne / Camille duet in Act 1 (‘Zauber der Häuslichkeit’), the Play-scene and Dance Duet of Hanna and Danilo in Act 2, and the opening Entr’acte, Maxim’s music and the Cake-walk with the reprise ‘Da geh’ ich zu Maxim’, all from Act 3.

Critical acclaim for this recording exhausted all superlatives: ‘To praise the performance, the recording ... of the opera, as they deserve would exhaust the limited stock of laudatory adjectives in our language. Emmy Loose is exactly right, Nicolai Gedda is a superb Camille, Schwarzkopf sings Hanna so radiantly and exquisitely, and Otto Ackermann conducts with complete understanding and the Philharmonia Orchestra plays like angels for him’, wrote Alec Robertson in the July 1953 edition of The Gramophone.

The rôle of Hanna Glawari is undertaken by the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (b. 1915), the wife of Walter Legge whom she married in 1953. She studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and later with the soprano Maria Ivogun, making her début as one of the Flowermaidens in Parsifal with the Städtische Oper, Berlin, in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano she undertook rôles such as Adele in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos when she joined the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance was with this Company on their visit to London in 1948, when she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. She then joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles, mostly in English. Alongside these appearances, Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946-1964), La Scala, Milan (1948- 1963), San Francisco (1955-1964) and, finally, at the Metropolitan in New York in 1964. She was greatly admired in the rôles of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Elvira. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall. She recorded a number of operetta rôles including Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus and Saffi in Der Zigeunerbaron.

The Austrian baritone Erich Kunz (1909-1995) was assigned the rôle of Danilo. Born in Vienna, he studied with Professor Lierhammer and the baritone Hans Duhan. Making his début as Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Troppau in 1933, he spent the summer of 1935 as a member of the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. This was followed by periods in Plauen (1936-37) and Breslau (1937-41) before joining the Vienna State Opera in 1940. Two years later followed his Salzburg Festival as Figaro. The year 1943 saw Kunz at the Bayreuth Festival singing Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, a rôle he would repeat in 1951. He visited London in 1948 as a member of the Vienna Company, singing Leporello, Figaro and Guglielmo. He sang the latter rôle on his return to Gylndebourne in 1950. His years at the Metropolitan in New York were between 1952 and 1954 when he sang 22 performances of four rôles, Beckmesser, Leporello, Faninal and Figaro. He again sang in London with the Vienna Company in 1954. Kunz was a fine Mozartian with an engaging stage manner.

The rôle of Valencienne is sung by the Austrian soprano, Emmy Loose (1914-1987), who was born in Karbitz/Aussig (on the Elbe) in Bohemia. Educated at the Prague Conservatory, she made her début in 1939 as Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Hanover. Two years later she was engaged by the Vienna State Opera to perform Ännchen in Der Freischütz. She sang there for 25 continuous years as a lyric and coloratura soprano. Loose also appeared regularly at festival seasons in Salzburg, Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence and Bregenz, in addition to engagements at La Scala, Milan. She appeared at Covent Garden in London with the Vienna Company in 1948 and as guest with the resident company, singing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Susanna in Figaro during the 1949-50 season. She also sang in Japan and North and South America. From 1970 she taught at the Vienna Academy of Music. Emmy Loose was admired in the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss, a number of which she recorded.

The versatility of the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda has always been considered remarkable in that he has sung in and can speak seven languages. Born in Stockholm of a Russian father, a bass member of the Kuban Don Cossack Choir and later cantor at the Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig, and Swedish mother, he studied with the Swedish tenor Carl Maria Oehman at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. He made his début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1951 in the première of Sutermeister’s Der rote Stiefe, followed by the rôle of Chapelou in Adam’s Le postillon de Longjumeau in April 1952, an occasion which brought him to international attention. After taking part in the first Western recording of Boris Godunov under Dobrowen (8.110242-44), Gedda made his La Scala début in 1953 as Don Ottavio and the Groom in the première of Orff’s Il trionfo di Afrodite. The following years saw him appear at the Paris Opéra (Huon in Oberon), the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Covent Garden (the Duke in Rigoletto), Salzburg Festival (Belmonte in Die Entführung) and the Metropolitan in New York as Gounod’s Faust. In 1958 he created the rôle of Anatol in Barber’s Vanessa, which he also gave in Salzburg. He first sang Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at the Holland Festival in 1961, which he later repeated at Covent Garden in 1966, 1969 and 1976. He also appeared in Russia in 1980-81 to great acclaim. His London concert hall début took place in 1986. He sang at the Met for 22 seasons in 27 rôles in 289 performances. He was still recording as recently as 2002. Gedda has proved the most versatile lyric tenor of his time with a vast discography covering every conceivable aspect of the repertory.

The Czech-born but later naturalised British baritone Otakar Kraus (1909-1980) was born in Prague where he studied with Konrad Wallerstein before moving to Fernando Carpi in Milan. Making his début as Amonasro in Brno in 1935, he was a member of the Bratislava Opera from 1936 to 1939. With the outbreak of the Second World War Kraus eventually came to Britain and joined the touring Carl Rosa Company in 1940. As a member of the newly formed English Opera Group in 1946, he created Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, later taking the rôle of the Vicar in Albert Herring, and Lockit in Britten’s realisation of The Beggar’s Opera. He joined Netherlands Opera for the 1950-51 season in addition to creating the rôle of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Venice later that year. This was followed by 22 years as a member of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. There he sang most of the principal baritone parts in addition to creating Diomede in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida in 1954 and King Fisher in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage the following year. He sang Alberich in the Ring at Bayreuth between 1960 and 1962. Whilst not endowed with the greatest of voices, Kraus was a superb singing actor who was greatly admired for his make-up skills. He retired in 1973 to teach.

The recording’s producer Walter Legge had originally wanted Karajan as conductor for this recording but he declined. Then he turned to the Swissnaturalised Otto Ackermann (1909-1960) who proved to be an outstanding interpreter. Born in Bucharest, he first studied there at the Royal Academy of Music before moving to the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where his teachers were Georg Szell and Leo Prüwer. At the age of fifteen he conducted the Royal Romanian Orchestra while they were on tour before accepting a position in the Opera House of his native city for the 1925-26 season. He was appointed a Kapellmeister at Düsseldorf Opera in 1928 and in 1932 moved to the German Opera in Brno. This was followed by an appointment to the Municipal Theatre in Berne in 1935 where he remained until 1947. Between 1949 and 1955 Ackermann worked regularly at Zurich Opera in addition to the Theater an der Wien between 1947 and 1953. Then followed three years as Music Director at the Cologne Opera. He returned to Zurich in 1958 but soon became seriously ill, dying in 1960. Ackermann was a fine conductor of both opera and operetta in addition to being admired as a sound Mozartian.

Malcolm Walker

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