Recorded at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, UK on 17 and 21 May 2009
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post-production by Julia Thomas, Finesplice, UK
Design by John Haxby
Photographs of Alfie Boe by Richard Ecclestone
Photography of Michael Rosewell by Devon Digital
Franz Lehár 1870-1948
It is no exaggeration to say that Franz Lehár's 1905 The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) ushered in not only a new age in Viennese operetta, but was the work which showed the way for a new style of, purely twentieth-century, musical play. Between then and 1934, when his last stage work, Giuditta, was premiered, Lehár knew an almost uninterrupted success. He was the logical successor to Johann Strauss II as Vienna's waltz king, and his work inspired two generations of composers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lehár was born on 30 April 1870 in Komárom, Hungary, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Franz Lehár Senior, was an Austrian violinist and regimental bandmaster. His mother, Christine Neubrandt, was the daughter of Hungarian farmers and merchants. Thus young Franz was born with an equal inheritance from both sides of the Danube, and all his life he would contrast the Viennese waltz with the Hungarian czardas to make a perfect fusion between the two traditions.
Lehár followed in his father's footsteps, and at 20 was appointed bandmaster, the youngest in the army, in a town called Losoncz. He was present in Vienna in 1891 when Johann Strauss II celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his first operetta, and by 1902 he had seen his own first stage work performed. This was called Wiener Frauen (Viennese Ladies), and was followed by three other operettas, one of which, Der Rastelbinder, had quite a success. Its stars were the soprano Mizzi Günther and baritone Louis Treumann and three years later, when The Merry Widow was first performed they were once again the leads. Why was The Merry Widow such an unprecedented success - it is possibly true to say that there has been no day since its premiere that it has not been performed somewhere. The story is an old one: boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-finds-her-again. It was based on a French farce and set in Paris - that usually helps. It had a strong sub-plot about another pair of star-crossed lovers, and they do not end happily. It was Lehár's brilliant succession of arias, duets and ensembles that caused generation after generation all over the world to take it to their hearts. Two tunes in particular became ever-lasting favourites: The Merry Widow waltz (‘Love unspoken', track 9) and the nostalgic ‘Vilia' (track 2). In the play this is, of course, sung by the Widow herself, but there is precedent for a tenor to sing it, even if rather unusual. When the operetta was revived in Berlin in 1928, in a spectacular production starring the great Fritzi Massary, it was given a thorough updating. The location changed to Honduras, and ‘Vilia' was sung on its own as a prologue by the famous Parisian night-club owner and chanteur, Jocelyn "Frisco" Bingham.
Although Lehár's subsequent operettas, especially The Count of Luxembourg (1909) and Gypsy Love (1910), achieved a good deal of success, nothing equalled The Merry Widow, and once the world had been torn apart by the conflict of the 1914-18 Great War, it was hard to see where the old formula of operetta would fit in to the new jazz age. Lehár and his librettists decided to look beyond Vienna and Budapest, and went for a series of works set in exotic locations. Frasquita (1922) was a sort of modern-day Carmen, taking place in Barcelona. During its first run in Vienna, the role of Armand, the hero, was taken over by a young tenor called Richard Tauber. He created a sensation with his singing of the famous serenade ‘Farewell, my love, farewell' (track 12) and between then and 1934 he created the main role in most of Lehár's new operettas. Paganini (1925) concerned the adventures of the celebrated violinist whose philosophy of life is, ‘Girls were made to love and kiss' (track 3). Frederica (Friederike) (1928) was a highly fictionalised account of the life of the young Goethe, who falls in love with the village maiden, and serenades her with his song, ‘O maiden, my maiden' (track 4). In The Land of Smiles (1929) he was the romantic Chinese Prince Sou-Chong, who weds the Viennese girl Lisa. Despite the charms of ‘Beneath the window' (track 11) and his avowal in the most famous of all Lehár's arias for Tauber, ‘You are my heart's delight' (track 5), it all ends in tears - East and West cannot stay together.
In 1930 Lehár revised an earlier work, originally called Endlich allein (Alone at Last), in which Act 2 had taken place on top of a mountain, with the lovers snowed in. This became Schön ist die Welt and as usual the big hit was Tauber's solo ‘Just believe it's true' (track 1). There was one ambition that Lehár had nursed throughout his career, and that was to have a work premiered at the Vienna State Opera. In 1934 that dream came true, with Giuditta, his final stage work, and the last he composed for Tauber. The story of another pair of lovers who are forever torn apart, it gave the tenor two of his greatest moments, as the army officer Octavio who sings ‘Friends, this is the life for me!' (track 10) and ‘Love was a dream' (track 6).
Once Hitler had taken over Germany and Austria, Richard Tauber moved to England, where during World War II he starred in his own operetta Old Chelsea. Lehár survived the Nazi terror, but composed no more operettas. The two old friends were re-united in 1947 for one final concert in Zürich, Tauber died a few months later, as did Lehár on 24 October 1948. Just listen to a few bars of any Lehár waltz or aria, and the whole world of late Viennese operetta is conjured up. Whether the setting is France or Austria, Italy, Spain or China there is no denying the allure of his melodies that have enchanted the world for more than a hundred years.
© Patrick O'Connor, 2009