This was a work that attracted the admiration of no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. In her memoirs, Alma Mahler recalled their visit to the show:
"One evening, Mahler and I attended a performance of The Merry Widow, and enjoyed it very much. Afterwards, at home, we danced and so to speak reconstructed Lehár's waltzes from memory. Then something funny happened. We couldn't remember how the tune went at one particular point, try how we might. In those days we were both too snobbish to consider buying a copy of the waltz. So the two of us went to Doblinger's music shop. Mahler engaged the manager in a discussion about the sale of his works, while I leafed apparently aimlessly through the numerous piano selections and potpourris of The Merry Widow until I came to the waltz and the bars I was looking for. I then went up to Mahler, he quickly took his leave, and once we were out in the street I sang him the passage, so as not to forget it again."
Die lustige Witwe was first performed at the Theater an der Wien on 30 December 1905, when it was an immediate and enduring success: between 1905 and by the time of Lehár's death in 1948, the operetta had clocked up an astonishing 300,000 performances. Lehár's biographer Stefan Czech has described it as "much more than a stage success – it was a revolution. With it, a new type of operetta was born ... Above all, it was a revolution in musical inspiration."
But in fact, this "revolution" in operetta nearly didn't happen at all. Richard Traubner has related the story of how it was only by a stroke of luck that Lehár was asked to compose the score at all. The first composer that Victor Léon and Leo Stein (authors of the libretto) had in mind was Richard Heuberger, but "unpleased with Heuberger's first act setting, and wary about giving the libretto to Lehár after the failures of Der Göttergatte and Die Juxheirat, the librettists ... had to be pressured by the Theater an der Wien secretary Steininger into allowing Lehár a trial song. This, composed in a single day and played over the telephone to Léon, was the "Dummer, dummer Reitersmann" ... duet in Act II. Lehár got the job" (Traubner: Operetta: a Theatrical History, 2003, 246–7).
All was not plain sailing, though. The management hated the score that Lehár brought back from a summer of composing at Bad Ischl, and convinced that the thing was going to fail, they put as little money as possible into the production. According to Traubner, "Only the ... stars, Louis Treumann (Danilo) and Mizzi Günther (Hanna), and the composer, had any faith in the operetta. ... The first night actually went fairly well: many numbers were encored, and some of the reviews were kind (though one called the operetta 'distasteful'). Yet there was very little interest at the box office. Free tickets were distributed in order to reach the fiftieth performance (necessary for reasons of prestige). By that time, business had picked up sufficiently to keep the show running until 29 April 1906, when the piece was transferred to the then suburban Raimundtheater. ... In the fall, the Widow returned to the Theater an der Wien. For the 300th performance, the show was redressed and redecorated; by the end of the 1906–7 season it had been produced in theatres in virturally ever city in the German-speaking world" (Traubner 2003, 247).
As the work began to become a really big success, in June 1906 – just six months after the world première – Mizzi Günther (the original Hanna Glawari) and Louis Treumann (the original Danilo) recorded eight numbers from Die lustige Witwe. Despite primitive sound (and some shaky orchestral playing), these are a remarkable record of the singing style of the original cast of this great operetta.
The recordings were made by Franz Hampe. Born in 1879, he was an immensely enterprising engineer who made his first record in 1902, was recording in St Petersburg, Warsaw and Stockholm the following year, and worked primarily in German and Russia over the next decade. Perhaps his most famous project was a pioneering expedition in 1909 to record traditional music in Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. For a list of Hampe's recording sessions, and further information about his work, see http://www.recordingpioneers.com/RP_HAMPE1.html.
For the present recordings of music from Die lustige Witwe, Hampe used the original artists for all the songs except two ("Ich bin eine anständ'ge Frau" is sung in the opera by Valencienne rather than Hanna, and "Der Zauber der Häuslichkeit is a duet for Valencienne and Camille). No recording of the March-Septet exists from the original cast, but it was recorded by a military band at about the same time (and this is also included below).
The conductor is not named on the 1906 Vienna recordings of Die lustige Witwe. (The first performance had been conducted by Lehár himself.)
Apparently these Günther and Treumann recordings were made on a single day: 22 June 1906 (see Pekka Gronow and Ilpo Saunio: An International History of the Recording Industry, 1999, 25).
Da geh ich zu Maxim, Louis Treumann, 22 June 1906 (GC 42524):
O kommt doch, o kommt, ihr Ballsirenen: Louis Treumann, Vienna, Nov or Dec 1906 (CG 42785):
Vilja-Lied: Mizzi Günther, rec. Vienna, 22 June 1906 (GC 43769):
Das Lied von dummen Reiter: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, 22 June 1906 (GC 44074):
Tanzduett: Lippen schweigen: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 44075):
Es waren zwei Königskinder: Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 42529):
Der Zauber der Häuslichkeit: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 44073):Weibermarsch: Militärkapelle des k. u. k. Inf.-Reg. Hoch- u. Deutschmeister No. 4, ?1906 (CG 40294):
Louis Treumann, the original Graf Danilo, was born in Vienna in 1872, the son of a Jewish merchant. After working in Pilsen, Salzburg, and Munich, he joined the company of the Carltheater in Vienna in 1899. Mizzi (sometimes given as Mitzi) Günther was born in Varnsdorf (Bohemia) in 1879 and made her debut at the Carltheater in 1901. She was quickly paired with Treumann, and they enjoyed their first success with Lehár''s operetta Der Rastelbinder in 1902. Günther and Treumann moved to the Theater and der Wien in 1905, where they both scored triumphs as Hanna and Danilo in Die lustige Witwe. They continued to work successfully in the theatre (Günther scored another big success in 1907 as Alice in Leo Fall's Die Dollarprinzessin), and Treumann later acted in several films. Günther only appeared in one film – Johann Strauss an der schönen blauen Donau made in 1913, and also starring the singers Selma Kurz and Luise Kartousch, and the great pianist Alfred Grünfeld (see http://filmarchiv.at/show_content.php?sid=173 for a discussion of this film, which was thought to have disappeared until its rediscovery a few years ago).
Treumann and his wife Stefanie were arrested in 1942 by the Nazis and transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Both of them perished there.
Günther's long career in Viennese theatres lasted until at least 1948. She died in 1961.
The first major opera star to record any of the music was probably Marcella Sembrich who had her greatest success at the Metropolitan Opera. Sembrich's recording of "The Merry Widow Waltz" was made for Victor in 1908:
The same year, also for Victor, the Peerless Quartet (a male vocal group) and orchestra recorded an English-language version of the March-Septet, with the title 'Women!':
On 15 September 1906, Vilma Conti recorded the "Vilja-Lied" for the Edison Company in Berlin:
A year later, the Edison Company recorded "Da geh ich zu Maxim" with Paul Biegler in Berlin:
Finally, two different selections, the first by the Edison Symphony Orchestra and the second by the Indestructible Concert Band, both recorded in 1908.
Edison SO selection 1908:
Indestructible Band selection 1908: