Barrie Kosky’s magic The Merry Widow in Zurich goes in search of lost time

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lehár, Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow): Soloists, Extras association and Chorus of Zurich opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Patrick Hahn (conductor). Zurich Opera, 11.2.2024. (MF)

(left front, l-r) Marlis Petersen (Hanna Glawari), Nathan Haller (Raoul de Saint-Brioche) and Omer Kobiljak (Vicomte Cascada) © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Barrie Kosky
Set and Lighting – Klaus Grünberg
Set collaboration – Anne Kuhn
Costumes – Gianluca Falaschi
Choreography – Kim Duddy
Chorus master – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche

Baron Mirko Zeta – Martin Winkler
Valencienne – Katharina Konradi
Graf Danilo Danilovitsch – Michael Volle
Hanna Glawari – Marlis Petersen
Camille, Count de Rosillon – Andrew Owens
Vicomte Cascada – Omer Kobiljak
Raoul de Saint-Brioche – Nathan Haller
Bogdanovitsch – Valeriy Murga
Sylviane – Maria Stella Maurizi
Kromow – Chao Deng
Olga – Ann-Kathrin Niemczyk
Pritschitsch – Andrew Moore
Praškowia Liliana Nikiteanu
Njegus – Barbara Grimm

Dancers – Sina Friedli, Natalia López Toledano, Romy Neumann, Sara Peña, Sara Pennella, Noa Joanna Ryff, Pietro Cono Genova, Alexander Hallas, Alessio Marchini, Davide Pillera, Steven Seale, Alessio Urzetta

The basic plot of Franz Lehár’s operetta is about an illusionary world of love and financial fortunes in which Hanna Glawari, a widow of colossal wealth, is idolized by Parisian men. Baron Mirko Zeta, ambassador of the heavily indebted imaginary state of Pontevedro, is worried that the widow – herself a Pontevedrian – could lose her heart and her millions to a Frenchman and schemes a marriage between Hanna and his bon vivant fellow countryman Danilo. Hanna and Danilo, linked by a relationship in their youth, refuse to be manipulated for mere pecuniary reasons. After navigating a number of turns, the relationship, and the state of Pontevedro’s finances, are saved.

Die Lustige Witwe was first staged in Vienna in 1905, immediately sparking worldwide operetta enthusiasm, particularly so in New York where it became fashionable to sport Merry Widow hats, squeeze into Merry Widow corsets and stay at Merry Widow hotels to slurp Merry Widow cocktails. The early-twentieth century metropolises provided an ideal breeding ground for the cult. Theodor W. Adorno likened the hustling and bustling around Die Lustige Witwe to the success of the department stores that emerged at the time.

For this Zurich production, the German-Australian director Barrie Kosky narrates the story from Hanna Glawari’s perspective, as she reminisces about her past. He frames the original plot with a prelude and an epilogue. The curtain goes up before the overture, in complete darkness and silence. A dignified middle-aged Hanna Glawari enters the stage and takes a seat at the grand piano. From it sounds a medley of the operetta’s best-known tunes, a recording by Lehár himself preserved on a piano roll (the recording is available on YouTube). The melodies transport Hanna onto a dreamlike journey during which memories of her relationship with Danilo of a quarter century ago are brought to life. As if from the Proustian teacup, half a dozen young Danilos emanate. In their tailcoats, with neatly pomaded hair and moustaches they resemble the French writer in Jacques-Émile Blanche’s famous portrait.

The operetta’s staging is full of memorable magic images. Incidentally, during his tenure as intendant at Berlin’s Komische Oper, Kosky initiated an operetta-revival. He alternates between solo-, duet- and big ensemble scenes, expertly breaks clichés and oscillates between comical lightness and moving depth.

After plenty of raucous slapstick, the performance ends in a melancholy hush. The ebullient tutti chorus ‘Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist schwer’ ends abruptly mid-sentence. It is followed by the epilogue, arranged by conductor Patrick Hahn, an intimate dialogue between Hanna and Danilo who have found peace as a mature couple. Danilo exits the stage and leaves Hanna behind. She takes her seat at the grand piano, widowed yet again, warmly clutching Danilo’s portrait while a violin solo carries their image and the last notes up to the heavens.

Kosky emphasises Lehár’s depiction of Hanna Glawari as a woman who from her very first appearance leaves no doubt that she is in charge, continuing Jacques Offenbach’s tradition. Hanna is fully aware that her suitors are first and foremost after her cash. She is not a femme fatale, as for example Richard Strauss’s contemporaneous Salome. Hanna Glawari boasts a mixture of self-confident charm and seriousness, making her a modern woman, a unique thing in operetta at the time. German soprano Marlis Petersen fills every facet of the character.

The set by Klaus Grünberg and Anne Kuhn is of ingenious simplicity. A largely empty dark stage is structured by a row of lights and a spiral shaped moving curtain which acts as backdrop or veil, echoing the works’s numerous waltzing rhythms. The grand piano and its seat are the only props. Gianluca Falaschi contrasts the set’s sobriety with costumes of unscrupulous exuberance. We are treated to frou-frou, feathers and frivolous frocks. The initial black and white gradually evolves to full force chromaticity. Dancers wear three feet high headpieces and do cartwheels in golden cancan costumes.

Michael Volle (Graf Danilo Danilovitsch) and Marlis Petersen (Hanna Glawari) © Monika Rittershaus

The production team views operetta as a Gesamtkunstwerk, whose interpreters must be up to the ‘triple threat’ of musicals: they must sing, act and dance. From the outset, Kosky and Andreas Homoki, Zurich opera’s General Director, agreed that Petersen and German Baritone Michael Volle should be cast as main protagonists. Kosky has previously worked with both, Petersen was the Marschallin in his Der Rosenkavalier and Volle sang Hans Sachs in Kosky’s Bayreuth Die Meistersinger. They sing, they act, and they dance to full effect. While boasting the full range of comical talent, they share a rare intimacy and frailty as a couple. Their ‘Lippen schweigen’ duet steers clear of schmaltzy chart topping, instead movingly displaying the complexity of human longing for love.

The main cast is completed by the light and playful Katharina Konradi as Valencienne and Andrew Owens as her suitor Camille, Count de Rosillon. Martin Winkler’s buffoonish Baron Zeta brings to mind Oberst Böckl of the Sisi films. His sidekick Njegus is entertainingly portrayed by Swiss actress Barbara Grimm. Would it not amount to an unfortunate real-life coincidence, one could describe the two ageing Pontevedro state representatives as ‘sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly men with a poor memory’. The singers are supported by a strong chorus, superbly prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger, and a lively flock of twelve dancers in Kim Duddy’s choreographies spanning the full range from subtle tenderness in the dream sequences to unhinged ardour during the party frolics.

The Austrian Patrick Kahn, at 28 years the youngest conductor of a premiere at Zurich opera, leads the Philharmonia Zurich. They treat us to colourful, gentle phrases, exploring the various genres between marches, dances and waltzes with energy and finesse. Kahn masterfully modulates the score’s tempi and dynamics. A six strong stage band with balalaika completes the instrumentalists.

During the premiere audience’s enthusiastic applause, the full cast and orchestra broke into another cancan. We left the house with a spring in our own step.

Michael Fischer

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