LEHÁR: Das Land des Lächelns
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LEHÁR: Das Land des Lächelns

spacer Habermann, Mitani; Choi, 
Kerschbaum, Tanabe, Serafin, Singer, Wahl; Bibl. Seefestspiele Mörbisch, Serafin. Production: Bauernfeind. 
ORF VLMD 007, 134 mins., subtitled


Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta Das Land des Lächelns (Land of Smiles) is best remembered for its tenor showpiece “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” but the score brims with other glorious musical moments. The plot, however, is a potential minefield of political incorrectness. Lisa, the headstrong, independent daughter of a Viennese count, falls in love with a visiting Chinese prince, Sou-Chong, to the chagrin of her stalwart admirer, Güstl. But when Sou-Chong returns to China with Lisa, custom dictates that he take four Chinese wives. He tries to defy Chang, the arbiter of tradition, and in desperation imprisons Lisa to keep her from fleeing. Güstl comes to the rescue, and, together with Sou-Chong’s sister Mi, they convince Sou-Chong to release Lisa.

This splendid 2001 production by the Seefestspiele Mörbisch in Burgenland, Austria, neutralizes any danger of stereotyping by approaching both the Viennese and Chinese elements with grand-scaled authenticity. The European festival-chorus is supplemented by a corps of echt Viennese waltzers in Act I, while the Hunan Provincial Song and Dance Troupe takes over in Act II with a pageant of brightly dressed dancers and a rank of virile percussionists. Against this backdrop, the truth of the dramatic situation emerges in all its romance and poignancy. The vastness of the outdoor stage — with the lake behind and a moat in front — allows for vehicles that accentuate the gulf between the two cultures: Lisa enters the Viennese court on a horse and leaves in a car, but in China, travel is by dragon boat and rickshaw. The expansive, light-colored floral arches of Vienna give way to imposing Buddhas and stone towers in China. Additional kudos to set designer Rolf Langenfass, who also designed the delectable costumes.

Sangho Choi makes an endearing Sou-Chong, pacing his plush, dignified tenor wisely and reserving his deepest emotion for his big aria. Even more stunning is his encore, delivered in a sustained piano that seems to make time stop. Ingrid Habermann is a stellar Lisa, with a supple, brilliant soprano. She is particularly galvanizing when she repudiates Sou-Chong for spewing Chang’s misogynist invective at her. Dietmar Kerschbaum’s charm keeps his sweet, puppyish Güstl from being a doormat, while Yuko Mitani’s petulant Mi reveals surprisingly empathetic stoicism in Act II. Gideon Singer provides dry comic relief as the head eunuch, while festival director Harald Serafin seems to the manor born as the Count. Toru Tanabe is a dangerously self-composed Chang, while Volker Wahl is amusing as the Confucius-spouting Fu Li. The orchestra, under the direction of Rudolf Bibl, is top-notch. spacer 


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