This production of The Merry Widow was near the end of its run at Vienna’s Volksoper, but it still had plenty of life and zest – even the sets were hyperactive, whizzing about on trucks to show various rooms in the Pontevedrin Embassy and Hanna Glawari’s house, as well as a mock-up of Maxim’s against a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and the night sky of Paris. Lehár’s operetta has always been near the top of the list of popularity, even in countries where operetta is not as well-known as it should be. At home in Vienna, the score sizzles and fizzes with wit and melody, and calls for a production to match.

The Merry Widow © Dimo Dimov
The Merry Widow
© Dimo Dimov

The heart of a good Merry Widow should be the eternal go-between, Njegus, the Embassy Secretary. Here, played by Boris Eder, with improbably up-swept hair and riding a well-oiled bicycle, he trundled in and out of scenes, stealing each of them as he appeared. The Embassy, a hotbed of intrigue and adultery run by Kurt Schreibmayer as Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrin Ambassador, was ideally designed (with multiple doors and rotating screens) for farcical carryings-on. Clearly the bulk of the Pontevedrin economy had been spent on fitting out its mirrored walls and fashionable bar-stools, and so when Hanna Glawari arrived, the whole embassy set about the serious business of securing her fortune for her homeland, and preventing it from falling into the hands of some plausible Frenchman or other.

Before that, we were introduced to Count Danilo Danilowitsch (Marco di Sapia on excellent comic form), much the worse for wear from last night’s party chez Maxim, and deeply unimpressed by the idea that his service to his country should take the form of marriage to the Widow and her money. Having once turned her down when she was penniless (following pressure from his family), he feels unwilling to make it look as if he were only after her cash now that (after only 18 days of marriage) she has become a rich widow.

Hanna herself, played by Ursula Pfitzner with style and swagger, took over the show from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Her command of the suitors at the Ladies’ Choice dance was absolute, and she sent them all packing before yielding to her true affection and dancing with Danilo instead. In Act II, her “Vilja Song” had several audience members near me crooning along, but she drowned them out with the aid of the orchestra and its conductor, Kristiina Poska, a young Estonian who is the Kapellmeisterin at Berlin’s Komische Oper.

All the business with the fan and its inscriptions “I love you” and “I’m a respectable married woman” was played out with deftness and fun. The minor characters – Cascada and St Brioche in particular – were well-drawn. Instead of taking the interval between the acts, it was placed in the middle of Act II, after the boisterous nonsense of “Wie die Weiber?”, where Njegus mixes the drinks for the remaining unattached men. For the audience, there was a large lime tree in full bloom outside the Volkstheater, with a handily-placed wine bar underneath it. This is where most of us spent the interval, and very nice too.

The second part of Act II began with a reprise (sung by the women) on the theme of “Wie die Männer?”, and Ursila Pfitzner then had further good fun with “Dummer, Dummer Reitersmann”. During the dancing that followed, it was clear that Julia Koci had been cast as Valencienne as much for her acrobatic skills (including some splendid cartwheels) as for her singing voice. But operetta demands that these choices should be made, and this seemed to be the right one in the circumstances.

Once Maxim’s cabaret had been recreated in Hanna’s apartment, the third act got into its stride with the full complement of grisettes, Lolo, Dodo, Joujou, Cloclo, Margot and Froufrou, with Valencienne spinning more cartwheels and endless frilly bloomers on display. The ruse worked, and before long Danilo and Hanna were gazing into each others’ eyes and singing “Lippen Schweigen” – to the accompaniment, muted but audible, of my neighbours in the row. This was what we were all there for – a summer night in Vienna at the operetta, quite perfect.