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Music Review: The Merry Widow, 1964 Lincoln Center Cast Recording

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If Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow seemed dated and old-fashioned to critics when it was revived as the second offering of the new Music Theatre of the Lincoln Center in 1964 under the guidance of Richard Rogers, today, listening to the newly released cast recording of that Lincoln Center production from Masterworks Broadway, nostalgic—even classic—seem more appropriate descriptions. Lehar’s music is rich in color with melodies that echo fondly still a century later. It is music that has stood the test of time. In the hands of the right musicians it remains vibrant and enchanting, and the Lincoln Center cast headed by Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Munsel captures its bubbling spirit with joyful brio.

As Munsel sings, not only is her voice a powerful instrument, but you can imagine the twinkle in her eye. She play Sonia (Hanna in some translations), a Marsovian widow with a fortune in mortgaged property and jewels who, for her country’s sake, needs to keep her fortune in the country by marrying a Marsovian prince. At the Marsovian embassy in France, character actor Mischa Auer playing the Marsonvian ambassador makes a bumbling attempt to arrange a marriage for her.

Prince Danilo, son of the Marsovian king, played by baritone Bob Wright, a Broadway veteran, is an obvious choice, but he is jealous of the many other suitors pursuing the rich widow. Sonia, for her part, has problems with his flirtations with French showgirls. There is as you would expect the traditional happy ending with love conquering all. This is a frothy piece, and both Wright and Munsel excel with the material.

The most famous pieces from the show are the glorious Merry Widow waltz, “I Love You So,” and the haunting “Vilia” which opens the second act. But the rest of the score if not quite as well known is a happy excursion into turn-of-the-last-century Viennese romance. Munsel and Wright have a tuneful duet in “Riding on a Carousel,” and “Maxim’s” is a catchy romp for Wright as “Girls at Maxim’s” is for Munsel. “Women” is a dynamic ensemble piece featuring Auer, Sig Arno, and others. Frank Poretta and Joan Weldon have some nice moments in “Romance” and “A Respectable Wife.” Poretta’s tenor soars with power and passion. This is a cast that understands what operetta is all about and knows how to perform it. They have the light touch the form demands.

In many respects it is the waltz with its sweeping dramatic rhythms that defines the Viennese operetta and Lehar is as much a master of the form as any of the Strausses. There is a pomp and pageantry associated with the dance—one thinks of Die Fledermaus, for example—that is the essence of operetta. At its best it is light and airy like champagne. It is not to be taken too seriously. This recording conducted by the Tony-winning maestro and operetta specialist Franz Allers captures that playful spirit.

Masterworks Broadway will be making the recording available digitally and as a disc-on-demand along with a number of other original cast albums. These include lesser-known shows like Mr. President and The Happiest Girl in the World. Previous releases include The Chocolate Soldier, reviewed here.

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About Jack Goodstein