Franz Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles)
Harald Serafin (Count Lichtenfels), Sangho Choi (Prince Sou Chong), Ingrid Habermann (Lisa),
Dietmar Kerschbaum (Count Gustav von Pottenstein – “Gustl”), Yuko Mitani (Mi), Toru Tanabe (Uncle Tschang), Gideon Singer (Obereunuch), Volker Wahl (Fu Li), Nora Meidler (Fanny), Julia Resinger (Fini), Mörbisch Festival Choir, Bernhard Schneider (Chorus Master), The Hunan Provincial Song and Dance Troupe, Union Tournament Dance Formation Gold and Silver, Mörbisch Festival Orchestra, Rudolf Bibl (Conductor/Video Director), Winfried Bauernfeind (Stage Director), Friedrich Rom (Lighting Designer), Rolf Langenfass (Costume and Flower Designer), Gisela Walther (Choreography), Wolfgang Fritz (Acoustics Designer)
Recording: Bauernkapelle St. Georgen, Austria (2001) – 134’
Videoland Klassik #VLMD 007 – Booklet in German and English - Subtitles in English, French, Italian and Spanish (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Franz Lehár’s most endearing of all scores is unquestionably Die lustige Witwe (1905), but several of his other operettas fall right behind in tight formation. Despite an occasional hiccup here and there, Lehár’s musical vision continued to grow with sophistication and complexity to cater to the times. Increasingly agglomerating with more serious subject matter, Das Land des Lächelns takes on a superficiality of happiness that thinly jackets more profound undertones. Premiering on October 10, 1929, it’s hard to imagine the show’s opening was only 19 days ahead of one of the world’s worst financial disasters: The Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929. With the imminent demise soon to come, perhaps The Land of Smiles would have been better titled as The Land of Sadness and for reasons why below.
Cemented in a Herzer/Beda-Löhner re digested version of Viktor Léon’s original libretto, this is a story about a Viennese count’s daughter, Lisa, who falls in love with Chinese president-to-be, Prince Sou Chong. Together, they return to Sou Chong’s terra firma only to find the couples’ cultures in a head-on collision, discombobulating the love affair and resulting in a hasty desire by the female equestrian to flee the country. Lisa can't comprehend being a secretive wife (concubine) while Sou Chong's culture requires him to marry four Chinese wives. Lisa is devastated and angry.
It’s all about East versus West, and a clash of cultures and ideologies. This notion brings to mind Delibes’ Lakmé (1883)(Britain/India), Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904)(Japan/The United States) and Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1951) (England/Siam.)
What’s intriguing about Lächelns is the path of vocal and verbal discourse that opens one’s eyes to anthropological intercourse. It provides Lehár ample fuel to lay a diplomatic exposé, raising questions of conflicting protocols and mores. Influences of Puccini and Strauss greatly commingle inside Lehár’s musical lexicon. Minute measures of La fanciulla del West surface while Straussian swells of Germanic velocity radiate especially in Act I, yet Das Land des Lächelns retains its own set of distinguishable values. On balance, Lehár’s music predominantly abounds in sparkling lightness in Act I while an induction of an Oriental equation flitters with Westernized confluences in the remaining two acts. Continuing in the tradition of lavish productions, Winfried Bauernfeind directs the Mörbisch Seefestspiele staging that elicits finery of Witwe in Act I while Act II has colorful ornamentation that’s a close match to the extravagances of a Zeffirelli Turandot.
In the role as leading female protagonist, Ingrid Habermann displays her lyrical soprano expertise with adroit confidence while the verbal dialogue is intensely demonstrative yet never over bearing. Her voice is reminiscent of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf but a shade darker. Rolf Langenfass adheres to the 1912 setting with elaborate costuming and props that are période appropriée. The politesse duet, “Bei einem tee á deux”, features Habermann and Choi kneeling on cushions which could be mistaken for a Yul Brynner/Gertrude Lawrence tête à tête. Here we see the entrée of blossoming love over a cup of Peking tea. Delightful.
Known for his exceptional interpretation of Lieder, Sangho Choi is a most pleasing match in the role of Prince Sou Chong. Though no one can compete with the irreplaceable tones of famed Teutonic Richard Tauber, Choi is a sure bet. The Korean-born tenor’s presence is characteristically fitting not to mention the lilting vocal expressions which are undeniably warm, tender and tear-jerking. We are introduced to the Chinese diplomat (Sangho Choi) early in Act I (18’ 55) when he sings his first demanding aria, “Immer nur Lächeln” (“We hide ‘neath a smile”.) Here, the text captures the essence of the operetta, and Lehár’s construct is melodically beautiful yet painfully sorrowful. This soulful tune will not leave one’s mind easily. Personally, the first piece that comes to mind is “We Kiss in a Shadow” from The King and I.
One of most dramatically challenging arias can be found in Act II, “Den ist mein ganzes Herz!” (“My heart belongs to you”), where Choi’s lyrical notes graciously melt into Lehár’s affectionately impassioned score. Constructed in da capo format, Sangho Choi revisits the main melody line, this time in sotto voce, ending on a perfectly pitched high A-flat that beams with pristine charm including a penultimate grace note. Touching, to say the least. Equally enthralling and moving is his aria, “Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz” whereby he effortlessly holds on to a high A with utmost assuredness.
It’s through Sou Chong’s sister that we begin to see yearnings of Chinese liberation (“Chai, chee, chee, choo, choo!”) Yuko Mitani’s rendition of Mi is well expressed, making her out to be a bit of a coquette chinoise. Her affection for Gustl (Dietmar Kerschbaum) continually grows, but this love connection is abruptly severed because it is Gustl who whisks Lisa back to Austria. This is a particularly moving segment of the operetta as Mi sheds real tears while clinging to her brother’s shoulder. The amorous bridge has been destroyed for both pairs.
Gisela Walther’s choreography maintains fluid momentum throughout. The Hunan Dance Troupe exposes Westerners to the rhythms and sounds of the Far East while Lehár’s Viennese waltzes are woven with impeccable footwork by the Union Tournament Dance Formation Gold and Silver.
Personally speaking, Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns is melodic and majestic, yet it’s also intensely emotional. If anyone is moved by Puccini, then one will understand. Have a box of Kleenex handy.