“Una vela!” and “Esultate!”
Alex Boyer, Raed Saade, Elias Berezin, Hatem Elgenedy, Bill Ketchum, and the Chorus
“Fuoco di gioia!”
Malcolm MacKenzie, Mr. Boyer, Joseph Gárate, and the Chorus
“Dove guardi splendono”
Shana Blake Hill, Mr. Boyer, Mr. MacKenzie, and the Chorus
“Si pel ciel”
Mr. Boyer and Mr. MacKenzie
“Or co’ dadi, ma fra poco”
The Men’s Chorus with Mauricio A. Palma II
“Tacea la note placida”
Excerpts from Act II: The Anvil Chorus (“Vedi! le fosche notturne”)
"Il balen del suo sorriso”
Mr. MacKenzie and the Men’s Chorus
Chorus of Nuns and “Degg’io volgermi a Quel”
Ms. Hill, Mr. MacKenzie, Ariana Stultz, and the Chorus
“E deggio e posso crederlo?”
Ms. Hill, Mr. Boyer, Mr. MacKenzie, Ms.Stultz, Mr. Palma, and the Chorus
“Gira la cote”
Mr. Boyer and the Chorus
Mr. MacKenzie and the Chorus
“Down in dear Marsovia”
Ms. Hill and the Chorus
“Oh the Women!”
Elias Berezin, Andrew Walker, Fox Singers Men, and the Men’s Chorus
“Oh, Come Away, Away!” and “I Love You So”
Ms. Hill, Mr. Boyer, Mr. MacKenzie, and the Chorus
Following Aïda’s success in 1871, Verdi claimed to be retired from writing for the stage and resisted all attempts to change his mind. Knowing that only a great libretto would entice the composer, his long-time publisher Giulio Ricordi took advantage of Verdi’s enduring love of Shakespeare. Rather than trying to revive Verdi’s interest in the long-abandoned libretto of King Lear with which he had struggled for years, Ricordi planted the idea of Shakespeare’s Othello (shrewdly initiating a conversation by blaming a librettist for ruining Rossini’s operatic version of the same play). Ricordi suggested that Arigo Boito, considered an Italian authority on Shakespeare, was interested in writing the libretto. In spite of his demurs, Verdi was clearly intrigued, and the seed for what is perhaps his dramatic masterwork was sown – although it was slow to grow. Boito’s successful reworking of the libretto of Simon Boccanegra encouraged Verdi to consider him as a collaborator. (Remarkably, Boito was preparing the premiere production of his own Mefistofele simultaneously with his work on Otello.) Boito would not only write the libretti of Otello and of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, but he became a close friend who was with Verdi during his last illness and death in 1901. It took 16 years from Aïda’s premiere (eight years after Ricordi’s suggestion and Boito’s initial scenario) until Otello’s triumphant premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1887. Verdi had completed his last tragic opera and supervised its production at the age of 72.
Verdi had always been interested in “la parolla dramatica” – the dramatic word – as a crucial part of his work, and not just a frame on which to hang splendid melodies. As both his fame and his skills increased, he became a consummate man of the theater and developed a firm hand in all matters having to do with his work. (For Otello, he dispatched the proposed designer to Venice to study the paintings of Bellini and Carpaccio in order to properly prepare the sets and costumes.) As with Aïda, Verdi was very demanding of his librettist in matters that affected not just the verse, but atmosphere, dramatic structure, everything that made an opera a piece of theater rather than concertizing. Verdi and Boito adhered to the major plot points of Shakespeare’s original, and the “father of the chorus” heightened the effect of the soldiers, courtiers, and Cypriot populace to great dramatic effect. George Bernard Shaw puckishly claimed, “The truth is that instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.” Regardless, there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s great tragedy was a brilliant match for Verdi’s mature genius.
Verdi and Boito begin their version of Shakespeare’s play with the first scene of Act II, omitting the first act in Venice in which Othello and Desdemona marry and the Doge and his council appoint Othello to lead their great expedition against the Turks. Given the limits of Elizabethan theater companies, which rarely boasted more than twenty actors, Shakespeare could only have two messengers describe Othello’s arrival. Verdi is able to bring the full force of his orchestration and chorus to portray the raging storm which threatens to overwhelm Otello and his troops as they return from the war.
The Venetian courtiers and soldiers and the Cypriot citizens anxiously watch the harbor during a ferocious storm, praying that Otello’s ship will make it safely to shore. They spy in the distance first a sail and then a ship with the Venetian flag (“Una vela! Un vessillo!”) They watch in terror as the waves first seem to overwhelm the ship, and then lightning reveals that it is still afloat. It seems that the universe itself is shaking. They entreat God to save the ship carrying Venice’s fortunes and bring it safely to the harbor. They cry for help as Iago mutters to his crony Roderigo that he hopes the frenetic sea will be Otello’s tomb. Suddenly the throng realizes that the ship has been saved and the sailors lower their shoreboats. As Otello steps onto shore, he tells the people to rejoice! (“Esultate!”) The proud Muslims have been buried in the sea and Venice and heaven have won glory. The overjoyed crowd hails Otello by celebrating his victory and the destruction and dispersal of the enemy buried in the horrid depths of the sea. Their only requiem will be the lashing of waves and the turbulence of hurricanes. Victory! Victory!
As the returning soldiers and the townspeople celebrate victory, they admire the joyous bonfire they have built (“Fuoco di goia!”) The cheerful blaze drives away the night with its splendor, flashing, sparkling, crackling, and flaring up, flooding their hearts with fire as well. Looking first like young girls, then like butterflies, vague shapes dance in the burning palms and sycamores. But the golden flames burn as quickly as the fire of love, pulsing, then growing dark, the last sparks flashing and dying.
Iago hates both Otello, for having passed him over for promotion, and Cassio, the lieutenant who has taken the post he believes should be his. Iago vows to help Roderigo, a foppish Venetian gentleman who is in love with Desdemona, to win her love from Otello. As part of his plot to destroy both his rivals, Iago plies Cassio with drink, knowing that Cassio is unable to hold his liquor. Proposing a toast to Otello and Desdemona which Cassio can’t refuse, Iago continues to refill their glasses for multiple toasts (Brindisi). Iago proclaims that all must drink with him, and the crowd eggs Cassio on by joining Iago in multiple toasts. As the toasts become ever more fantastic and Cassio ever drunker, the soldiers and townspeople laugh at his stumbling condition.
Iago encounters Otello in the castle gardens and begins to plant the seeds of jealousy in his mind. As they talk, Desdemona comes into the garden surrounded by local women, children, and sailors. They serenade her warmth and beauty and present her with flowers and gifts (“Dove guardi splendono.”) She radiates light and clouds of flowers bloom where she walks. Among the roses and the lilies, the fathers, children, and wives have come to sing to her and play their mandolins. Desdemona is delighted with their tribute and the shining skies, the soft air, the scent of their flowers. Joy, love, and hope sing in her heart. Otello is moved by her innocent song – if she is deceiving him, then heaven itself derides him. The people wish her happiness and love, but Iago vows to shatter their sweet accord.
In Act II, Iago continues to nurture the seeds of doubt and jealousy in Otello’s mind, and when he contrives to steal a precious handkerchief that was Otello’s first gift to Desdemona, he finds the final trick needed to fully convince Otello that his wife is unfaithful to him. Persuaded by Iago that Desdemona has given this important keepsake to the young soldier Cassio as a token of her love, Otello is overcome by fury. Any trace of love or mercy vanishes as he cries out for blood! He falls to his knees as he swears by heaven, (“Si, pel ciel“) by death, by the exterminating sea, that his hand will strike like lightning! Iago kneels with him to swear an oath to the sun and his Creator that he vows his heart, life, and soul to Otello. The two of them repeat Otello’s vow to their avenging God.
Premiered in Rome in 1853 (the same remarkable year that saw the premiere of La traviata), Il trovatore (The Troubadour) had a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of several other Verdi operas as well as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Cammarano fell ill before it was completed and his friend Emanuele Bardare undertook the task, generously refusing any printed credit as co-author. Based on the popular 1836 Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez (also the playwright of the original Simón Bocanegra), Il trovatore is set in war-torn 15th Century Spain. Even by the standards of the day, the plot has notable improbabilities, but it provided the sort of intensified action and high emotion that Verdi could dramatize so well. It is the story of two lovers, the troubadour Manrico (actually an officer in the service of the pretender Urgel) and Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the princess of Aragon, who are dogged by the young Aragonese nobleman Count di Luna, a fearsome rival for the heroine’s affections. The love triangle is caught up in a civil war between the Court of Aragon and a pretender to the throne. In addition to the familiar soprano-tenor-baritone triangle, Verdi – always on the lookout for innovative ideas – enlarged on the character of the gypsy Azucena. In an early draft, Verdi clearly intended Azucena to be the main role; he planned to title the opera La zingara (The Gypsy). It was at Verdi’s direction that Bardare provided a new aria for Azucena in the second act (“Stride la vampa!”), and Verdi provided the author with clear directions for the aria, going so far as to write some of the lyrics himself.
In Act III, the Count de Luna is besieging Castellor, the last fortress held by the rebels (under the leadership of the “troubadour,” Azucena’s son Manrico). De Luna’s soldiers gamble in the camp as they await the order to storm the castle. For now, they’re playing with dice, but soon they’ll be playing quite another game (“Or co’ dadi, ma fra poco”), and their shining blades will be sprinkled with blood. They welcome the arrival of reinforcements, who appear full of valor, because now the attack on Castellor won’t be delayed any longer. Their captain, Ferrando, tells them that they will indeed attack the fortress the next day and they will find both riches and glory. The soldiers relish the thought of the sound of trumpets leading them to war. Tomorrow their standard will be planted on top of the fortress. Never has victory smiled more brightly than she does now, and they look forward to their anticipated treasure and honor.
The second scene of Act I is set at night in the gardens of the Princess of Aragon’s castle, where the Princess’ lady-in-waiting Leonora recalls her first encounter with a mysterious troubadour, when the unknown knight took part in a tournament and bested everyone. She had not seen him since until a quiet night (“Tacea la notte placida”), when, beautiful in a clear sky, the full moon showed her silvery face. Sounding through the air, until then so silent, she heard the sweet and plaintive chords of a lute, and a troubadour singing melancholy verses…verses of humble prayer such as a man might say to God. In them was repeated a name – Leonora’s name! She ran swiftly to the balcony. It was he! He himself! She felt such a joy as is only granted to the angels. To her heart, to her ecstatic vision, the earth seemed like paradise! By such a love that can’t be expressed in words, a love that only Leonora can understand, her heart is intoxicated! She cannot fulfill her destiny except by his side. If she does not live for him, for him she will die!
The first scene of Act II is set at daybreak in a gypsy encampment in the mountains. The men take up their hammers and go to work at their anvils. See! The huge vault of heaven is pulling off the night’s dark cloak (“Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie”). It looks like a widow who at last takes off the mourning in which she wrapped herself. To work! To work! At it! Hammer away! Who is it who cheers the gypsy’s days? The gypsy girl! The men call for the women to bring them wine, which gives the soul and body energy and courage. Look! A ray of the sun shines more brightly in the glass.
In the second scene of Act II, Leonora has retired to a convent, believing that her beloved Manrico has been slain in battle. On the night before she is to take the veil, the Count di Luna arrives at the convent with his captain Ferrando and a band of soldiers to abduct Leonora before she can take her vows. Di Luna also believes that his rival is dead and the obstacles to his possessing Leonora have been removed, but now another one has arisen – the altar! He swears that she shall never belong to anyone but him, as he remembers the flash of her smile (“Il balen del suo sorriso”), which can conquer the light of the stars. The splendor of her beautiful face fills him with a new courage. He prays that the love burning inside him may speak to her, and the sun of her glance drive away the storm in his heart. A bell announces that the rite is about to begin, and Di Luna orders his men to hide and seize her before she arrives at the altar. The soldiers encourage each other to be daring as they hide themselves in the mysterious shadows, bidding each other to be silent and obey the Count’s will. Di Luna relishes the fateful hour of joy approaching that not even God can take from him.
The nuns of the convent pray that Leonora will see at the moment of death that human error has been a shadow, a dream (“Ah! se l’error inbombra”). The veil will hide her from human eyes. If she turns to heaven, heaven will open to her. Leonora asks her lady in waiting Ines why she is crying, and Ines replies that Leonora is leaving them forever. Leonora says that earth has no happiness, no hope, no flowers for her, and she must turn her eyes to Him who supports the afflicted (“Degg’io volgermi a Quel”). After many penitent days she may rejoin her lost love and asks that the nuns dry their eyes and lead her to the altar. She is startled by the Count di Luna’s entrance, and as he moves to seize her, Manrico suddenly appears to intervene. Leonora asks whether she can believe it (“E deggio e posso crederlo?”). Seeing him beside her is a dream, an ecstasy, a supernatural spell! Her heart can’t support such jubilation. She asks Manrico if he has descended from heaven, or is she in heaven with him? Di Luna is shocked to see his rival alive, and Manrico replies that neither heaven nor hell hold him, and God confounds the wicked. Di Luna warns him to flee if he still wishes to live, but Manrico’s fellow rebels arrive as Di Luna draws his sword. Ines and the nuns say the God in whom Leonora trusted has had pity on her as Manrico and Leonora escape while Di Luna’s followers attempt to restrain his mad fury.
With his father and uncle as his early teachers, Giacomo Puccini was born to a long line of musicians in the Tuscan town of Lucca in 1858. The family had a tradition of playing church music, but the younger Puccini turned to opera after he and some friends walked nearly ten miles to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s Aïda, which he said opened a new musical window for him. He was to say later that he felt God had touched him on the shoulder once and promised him success, but only if he wrote music for the theater. After entering the conservatory in Milan, he was encouraged by the professor and composer Ponchielli. Although Puccini’s first two operas, the one act Oberto and the full-length Edgar, were not successful, he persevered. His first great success was Manon Lescaut, first performed in 1893. The playwright and exacting music critic George Bernard Shaw proclaimed Puccini the heir to Verdi, and the comparison is worth noting. Like Verdi, Puccini was an exacting taskmaster of his librettists, sometimes hiring and firing several for a project before he found what he wanted. He was keenly interested in the theatrical strengths of his libretti and searched far afield for plays and fiction which he could put to good use. Many of his operas were based on French plays and novels but also included work by Schiller (a favorite of Verdi’s). Two of his greatest successes, Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West, were based on plays by the American playwright and impresario David Belasco. (Except for his unwilling use of an American setting to replace Sweden in Un ballo in maschera, even the far-reaching Verdi had not drawn on American sources for his work.) Puccini was also to have as publisher for most of his career the firm of Ricordi, Verdi’s long-time publisher.
When La bohème premiered in 1896 (under the baton of the young Arturo Toscanini), Puccini was already widely known in Italy. Although the opera did not receive great acclaim at its first performances in Torino and Rome, a production in Palermo in the same year was a wild success, and it reached as far as London and Los Angeles within another year. Along with Tosca and Madama Butterfly, La bohème remains one of Puccini’s best-loved and most frequently-performed operas. These were followed by other notable works that are still regularly staged: La fanciulla del West (commissioned and first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, starring Enrico Caruso); La Rondine; the trilogy Il Trittico (also premiered in New York;, and his last opera, left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 66, Turandot. A lifelong smoker, after months of health problems and a chronic sore throat, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After consulting numerous specialists, Puccini agreed to undergo experimental radiation therapy in Brussels. After days of grueling treatments and an operation, he seemed to be recovering, but then suffered a heart attack. He died on February 29, 1924.
The fairy tale of Turandot seems to have originated not in China, but in a 12th century Persian epic poem. Later tales in Arabic set the story in China, and one adaptation had Turandot challenge her would-be suitors not with a set of three riddles, but to a wrestling match. Puccini’s interest in Turandot was first sparked by his reading of an adaptation by Schiller of the 1762 commedia dell’arte play of the same title by the popular Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi. (The Schiller production was directed by no less than Goethe.) Puccini first began work with the librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni in March 1920, but did not actually begin composing until January 1921. The libretto they arrived at struck a balance between the sarcastic comedy of Gozzi and the idealized moral tale that Schiller presented, with Turandot no longer a heartless, cruel princess, but one who acts out of strong moral convictions. Between Puccini’s health problems and his drawn out wrangling with his librettists, not to mention despair that the libretto would ever meet his expectations, composition continued until March 1924, by which time he had completed all but the final scene. However, it was not until October 8, 1924 that he was finally satisfied with the text of the final duet. On October 10 he received his cancer diagnosis and left for Brussels on October 24. Puccini and his wife were never told how serious his illness was (at the request of his son), and he took the score with him to complete in Brussels. He apparently sensed the seriousness of his situation, however, and visited Toscanini before his departure to ask, “Please don’t let my Turandot die.” At his death, he had written vocal and piano sketches for the final scene, and the opera was completed by his friend Franco Alfano. At the first performance at La Scala on April 25, 1926, Toscanini famously put down his baton at the point at which Puccini had finished full composition and ended the performance with a curt announcement to the effect of “Here ends the performance, for this is where the composer finished,” an idea that was supposedly suggested by Puccini himself when he began to fear that he would not live to complete it. (Historical accounts differ widely on exactly what Toscanini said, but at the second and subsequent performances, Toscanini conducted the opera as finished by Alfano.)
The story itself is simple. Set in Peking in a time long past, the title character is the daughter of the Emperor Altoum. Princess Turandot has resolved not to marry because she has discovered that an ancestor of hers was once raped and murdered by a foreigner, and she must revenge her ancestor’s death. Any suitor wishing to claim Turandot’s hand must first solve three riddles, and the result of failure is death. Many foreign princes have already lost their lives before the first scene of the opera. An unknown prince (Calaf) arrives in the city and instantly falls in love with the beautiful princess. He successfully answers the three riddles, and Turandot begs the Emperor to release her from her pledge, but the Emperor says he will keep his promise. Calaf provides a riddle of his own: If Turandot can discover his name before daybreak the next day, he will agree to die. After a night in which no one in the city sleeps in the effort to find out Calaf’s name, Turandot admits that she both loved and hated him as soon as she saw him. He tells her his name and allows her to decide his fate, and Turandot announces to the people that she has discovered his real name: His name is Love.
In the first scene, a mandarin has announced Turandot’s decree requiring the three riddles and that the Prince of Persia has failed the task. At the rising of the moon, he will die by the executioner’s hand. The crowd gathered in front of the imperial palace is excited and bloodthirsty as the executioner’s assistants appear dragging a huge sword and a giant whetstone. The crowd cries to them to sharpen the whetstone (“Gira la cote”) as the assistants oil and sharpen the blade to make it gleam and spatter fire and blood. Their work will never languish where Turandot reigns! The crowd calls for more sweet lovers to advance themselves, and the executioner’s men announce their readiness to embroider them with hooks and knives. The crowd knows that whoever strikes the gong to demand to be allowed the trial will see her appear, as white as jade and as cold as the sword, the beautiful Turandot. But love is vain if fortune isn’t there. The riddles are three, but there is only one death.
The crowd looks at the darkening sky, wondering why the moon delays. Pale face, show yourself in the sky, come quickly!, like a decapitated head, bleak, bloodless, aloof. O wan lover of the dead, the cemeteries await your funereal light. Over there! A glimmer is spreading its deathly light in the sky. They cry out for the executioner Pu-Tin-Pao, telling him the moon has risen. Children tell of a stork that sings in the mountains to the east, but April doesn’t bloom and the snow doesn’t melt. From the desert to the sea, thousands of voices sigh, “Princess, descend to me, everything will blossom and shine.” Suddenly the young Prince of Persia is led to the scaffold, and the crowd’s ferocity is turned to pity. O youth, mercy on him! How sweet his face is, how firm his step. In his eyes are exhilaration and joy. In the background, Calaf has arrived and joins with the crowd to beg for mercy for the young Prince. As the crowd repeatedly cries out for pity, Calaf wishes to see the Princess and curse her for her cruelty. The crowd falls to its knees as Turandot appears on the balcony of the palace, and they continue to beg for mercy. However, she dismisses their pleas with an imperious gesture and the Prince of Persia is led away to his death.
One of Giacomo Puccini’s most enduring operas, Tosca was based on the 1887 French play La Tosca, written expressly for Sarah Bernhardt by Victorien Sardou. Set to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, Tosca premiered in Rome in 1900. Set in Rome in June 1800 against the backdrop of war between the Kingdom of Naples and the Republic of Rome established by Napoleon, the famous singer Floria Tosca and the painter Cavaradossi find their love thwarted by the evil chief of the secret police Scarpia, who hopes to have Cavaradossi executed for revolutionary activities and to claim Tosca for himself.
In Act II, Scarpia, the chief of the secret police fighting the republicans in Rome, has ordered Caravadossi arrested, believing that the artist is hiding Angelotti, the former consul of the Republic. Scarpia has induced Cavaradossi’s lover Floria Tosca to dine with him in his chambers – where he informs Tosca that he is holding Cavaradossi, who even under torture refuses to reveal Angelotti’s whereabouts. Cavaradossi is brought in and begs Tosca not to reveal anything, but when he is dragged away and Tosca hears his anguished cries as he is brutalized, she breaks down and tells Scarpia where Angelotti is hiding. Thinking that she has saved her beloved’s life, she is shocked when Scarpia says that Cavaradossi will nonetheless be executed unless Tosca gives herself to Scarpia. She says she has lived for art (“Vissi d’arte”) and lived for love. She has never done harm to a living soul! With a secret hand, she relieved as many misfortunes as she encountered. Always with a sincere faith, her prayers rose to the holy tabernacle. Always with a sincere faith, she placed flowers on the altar. In this hour of grief, why, why, Lord, why do you respond in this way? She gave jewels for the mantle of the Madonna, she gave her song to the stars, to the heavens, which smiled with more beauty. In this hour of suffering, why, why, o Lord, ah, why such a reward as this?
At the end of Act I, Scarpia plants seeds of doubt in the already jealous Tosca’s mind about her lover’s fidelity. As Tosca tries to hold back tears at her imagined betrayal, Scarpia attempts to comfort her. Ignoring his tender words, Tosca vows that she will catch the traitors in the act. Scarpia orders his adjutant to take three guards and follow her in a carriage, making sure they aren’t seen. He watches Tosca leave (“Va, Tosca!”), gloating that he will nest in Tosca’s heart, now that he’s unleashed the hawk of her jealousy. How much promise there is in her ready suspicion! As the churchgoers begin their hymn of thanks (“Te deum”), he relishes his double goal: the head of the rebel painter and, even more precious, the flame in Tosca’s eyes as she trembles with love in Scarpia’s arms. While the parishioners raise their voices to God, Scarpia vows that he will forget even God in order to have Tosca.
Although the operetta is set in Paris, its true soul lies in Marsovia, located somewhere between the newly erected Eiffel Tower and the glittering waltz capital of Vienna. Franz Lehár was born in Hungary but found lasting success as a composer in Austria. He wrote dozens of operettas, a few operas (mostly unfinished), several film scores, and innumerable orchestra works, especially marches and waltzes. Initially not an overwhelming success either with the public or the critics at its 1905 premiere in Vienna, The Merry Widow survived partly thanks to the tenacity of its producers (who had no other productions ready to take its place). After a run of several months, it went on to sell out every night for years and remains Lehár’s most famous and popular work. The Merry Widow was rapidly presented all over Austria and Germany, then the world; at one point there were five separate productions running in Buenos Aires – in five different languages. It ran for years in both London and New York, although the latter required the discreet excision of some of its more risqué lines, and it was still sniffed at for its looseness by The New York Times. It has spawned three glossy film versions (one of them a silent, which bears witness to the appeal of the plot as well as the music), a ballet, and even an ice show, not to mention hats, dresses, and corsets. The Merry Widow was a loose adaptation by librettists Victor Léon and Leon Stein of a French play by Henri Meilhac, co-author of the libretti for Carmen, Manon, and many of Offenbach’s most popular operettas.
Sonia, the widow of the richest man of an impoverished country, Marsovia, has inherited her husband’s fortune. Baron Popov, the Marsovian ambassador to France, is fearful that Sonia will be swept off her feet by a non-Marsovian while she is visiting Paris. He tries to enlist Prince Danilo, one of the attachés in his embassy, to marry Sonia so that Marsovia will not be left bankrupt. As it happens, Danilo and Sonia were once in love, but his uncle forbade his marriage to a poor commoner. Although they clearly still love each other, Danilo refuses to woo Sonia, fearing it will look as if he is only a fortune hunter like all the others who pursue her. Stung by his seeming indifference, Sonia announces that she will marry a Frenchman, although as it turns out, this is a ruse to protect the honor of the ambassador’s wife. Danilo is devastated that he will lose Sonia again, and she vows to herself that she won’t marry him until he says “I love you.” When Sonia announces that she will lose her fortune if she remarries, her other suitors quickly fade away, but Danilo is delighted and asks her to marry him. Upon learning that she meant that she would lose her fortune only because it would pass to the control of her new husband, he good-naturedly surrenders, ensuring the continued solvency of Marsovia as well as securing his true love.
To prove that her heart is still with her country, Sonia has invited her compatriots to a real Marsovian party. Her guests sing and dance to a Marsovian folk song, “Down in Dear Marsovia.” Sonia recalls their native land by singing another Marsovian song – the story of “Vilia,” a forest nymph who falls in love with a mortal.
In the midst of the romantic obstacles that Danilo faces with Sonia, he’s not the only man having trouble with the ladies. It seems Popov and the other Marsovians, not to mention some amorous Parisians entangled with certain wives who aren’t their own, are fed up with the whims and foibles of their women. If only they could live without them! “Oh, the Women!”
The Merry Widow is famous for its dances. During “Ladies’ Choice” at the Marsovian ball, the dancers pair off as they sing, “Oh, Come Away,” and at the end of the play Danilo finally capitulates to Sonia and is able to say the words she has been waiting for in the famous Merry Widow Waltz – “I Love You So.”