With the ever-present musical backdrop of a waltz theme, Baron Mirko Zeta greets his guests at an embassy function and leads them in a toast. His wife, Valencienne, is speaking privately to a young attaché who fancies himself in love with her. She is flattered, but cautions him that she is a respectable married woman in the gentle song, “I am a dutiful wife.” Zeta is preoccupied with his concern over the arrival in Paris of the young widow, Hanna Glawari, whose now-deceased husband was the richest man in Pontevedro. He is concerned that she will marry a foreigner while she is in Paris, effectively removing her great fortune from their tiny country and creating a financial calamity.
Hanna arrives at the party fully aware of Zeta’s anxiety and soothes him by expressing her love for her homeland. Several suitors claim her attention and she leads them away. Lehar uses the entrance song to instantly characterize each of the principal roles. Hanna’s character is clearly demonstrated in her entrance aria as we immediately experience her glamour and observe her ability to handle the opposite sex. Also evident in this waltz number is the lilt and rubato (give and take rhythmically) expected of a performer. This practice was not notated in the score but is stylistically authentic. The next guest is Count Danilo Danilovich whose entrance aria promptly states his preference for spending his evenings with lovely ladies at the cabaret, Maxim’s. The frequent harmonic changes of the verse accompaniment certainly depict his fickleness when it comes to women. The refrain of his entrance song also makes use of rubato, gradually accelerating the tempo to paint the sensual dream-like quality of his favorite hangout. Danilo recoils upon hearing Hanna’s name but quickly comes face-to-face with her. They had once been in love but had been separated by Danilo’s uncle who prevented their marriage due to her unsuitability. Now Danilo is scornful of Hanna’s money and does not wish to appear interested in her.
Baron Zeta notices Danilo and Hanna together and seizes the moment, telling Danilo that it is his patriotic duty to marry Hanna thereby keeping her great fortune in Pontevedro. The dancing has begun and a ladies’ choice is announced. Hanna’s suitors are hovering close by, hoping for an invitation, but Hanna chooses Danilo who at first makes the excuse that he can’t dance and then offers to sell his dance with Hanna for 10,000 francs. Her other suitors are discouraged by the amount and walk away. Left alone, Danilo acquiesces to dance with Hanna who refuses him in exasperation. Danilo ends up dancing without a partner. Musically the action of Act I culminates with the ballroom dance number that closes the act. Lehar crafts a perfectly sculptured melody combined with a bit of chromaticism and syncopation. The ensemble number is introduced by Danilo and repeated by the full orchestra and chorus.
The following day Hanna hosts a party where the guests are treated to authentic Pontevedrian singing and dancing. The music takes the form of a spirited Polonaise and then a nationalistic dance called the kolo. Hanna entertains the group with the ballad of “Vilja,” a woodland sprite who falls in love with a mortal man. “Vilja” is probably the most famous melody of the operetta. Beginning on a pianissimo (ppp) then soaring to a high “G” on the repeat of the sprite’s name, there is an enchanting, bewitching feel to the melodic line.
Hanna tells Baron Zeta that she intends to engage a troop of dancing girls to entertain Danilo in the style of Maxim’s cabaret. This buoys his hope that something of a romantic nature will develop between Hanna and Danilo. Danilo arrives at the party but seems oblivious to Hanna’s apparent interest. Zeta asks Danilo and Njegus, his aide, to meet him at the summerhouse in the garden at eight o’clock and then joins with some other men from the party to ponder the unpredictability of women. Hanna continues to probe Danilo’s possible interest in her. They walk away leaving Valencienne and Camille to talk privately about the future of their flirtation. They sing a little duet that contains harmonic progressions reminiscent of Puccini and Debussy. Valencienne feels their infatuation should come to an end and that Camille should propose marriage to Hanna. Camille is dismayed but agrees to one last meeting in the summerhouse.
Njegus sees the pair go into the summerhouse and retrieves Valencienne just as her husband arrives. Hanna takes her place in the summerhouse with Camille but Zeta, however, is still suspicious of what he thinks he saw. In the meantime Camille is playing out his part in the pretense thereby convincing Danilo that Hanna is having a romance with Camille. He sounds so credible that Valencienne believes it as well and is dismayed by Camille fickleness. Hanna knows that none of this is true but is enjoying herself so much that she expands on the joke and announces that she is going to marry Camille. Danilo pretends to be unaffected by the news but ultimately can not contain his frustrated anger. He draws himself up in righteous indignation to tell the story of a princess who made a ruin of her life, simply because she wanted to spite her lover. That said, he stomps off, looking for solace in the delights of Maxim’s. Musically, Lehár brings Act II to a close with a brilliant central act finale modeled after the Italian opera buffa. Mozart and Rossini brought this form to perfection and Lehár skillfully follows their lead.
It is later that same night and Njegus has assisted Hanna in converting her parlor into the very image of Maxim’s cabaret, including the Grisettes with whom Valencienne has volunteered to appear. Danilo comes in and joins in the rousing chorus as Lolo, Dodo, Joujou, Froufrou, Cloclo and Margot lavish attention on him. He receives a telegram from Pontevedro verifying the country’s financial collapse if Hanna’s money is removed from the Pontevedrian treasury. Out of patriotism Danilo officially prohibits Hanna’s marriage with Camille. Hanna reveals that the marriage plans were fabricated and Danilo reacts joyfully, admitting his love for her.
In the meantime Baron Zeta has determined that Valencienne really was the woman he saw in the summerhouse and states that he will divorce her. Then he promptly asks Hanna to marry him. Hanna states that her dead husband’s will stipulated that she would lose her money if she remarried. Danilo, excited by the prospect that Hanna’s money will not be an issue, states that he wants to marry her. But Hanna continues to protest. Danilo realizes that if he wants Hanna, he must accept the money, and in doing so he can also save his country. He surrenders quickly, embracing his fate with happiness. Baron Zeta forgives his wife when he reads the inscription on her fan which states, “I am a respectable wife.” All join in praise of the captivating mystery of womankind.
Courtesy of Virginia Opera