GENEVA (Reuters) - A new production in Geneva of “The Merry Widow” uses razor-sharp timing to bring out the humor, in a production so fresh it seems Franz Lehar’s operetta was written only yesterday. Lehar’s masterpiece premiered in 1905 in Vienna, in the twilight years of Emperor Franz Josef’s Austro-Hungarian empire, and rapidly became a world hit.
The tale of a small, peripheral European country tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, diplomatic leaks, and a political figure who prefers starlets and champagne to the serious business of statecraft has an undeniably contemporary feel.
In Geneva’s new production that opened on December 14, German director Christoph Foy develops the operetta’s knockabout farce routines with discipline to highlight a comic plot of marital infidelity and love triumphing over pride.
But by casting principals better known for serious roles, such as veteran Belgian bass-baritone Jose Van Dam as the hapless ambassador Baron Zeta, he also brings out the poetry of a classic tale of the war of the sexes.
With its timeless melodies, energetic dance routines and blend of humor and drama, The Merry Widow points the way to the American musical comedies of the 20th century while building on the operettas of Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss.
The story takes place at the embassy in Paris of the Grand Duchy of Pontevedro, a poverty-stricken Balkan principality which might just be based on Montenegro, and at the nearby house of a rich, young Pontevedrian widow.
The plot involves an attempt by the ambassador to persuade widow Hanna Glawari, who has been left a fortune by her late banker husband, to marry a Pontevedrian to prevent her capital leaving the country.
Hanna has her eye on a former sweetheart, the playboy diplomat Count Danilo, but he seems not to be interested.
Foy updates the setting to the 1950s or 1960s, and the sets recall a hotel of the time in Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia.
“I wanted to create an indeterminate post-war period when those communist countries thought they could take on the world,” he told Reuters.
The operetta is performed in a mixture of German, French and English — and even a little Serbian.
The production pokes fun at the operetta’s Ruritanian-style East European folklore, full of national dress and folk-dancing.
But Lehar’s pastiche Pontevedrian folksong “Vilja” has entered the repertoire of the world’s great songs.
And when Annette Dasch — the statuesque German soprano playing the widow — sings it, the laughter dies away as the audience listens to its tale of sexual passion and unrequited love, wrapped in one of Lehar’s most seductive melodies.
Reporting by Jonathan Lynn, editing by Paul Casciato