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Das Land des Lächelns

Zurich Opera

Beczala and ensemble in Zurich’s Land des Lächelns
© T+T Fotografie Toni Suter

WITH THE EXCEPTION of his perennially revived Merry Widow, the operettas of Franz Lehár are now the specialty of small, provincial opera houses or town-hall productions. Are they worthy of reevaluation? Even the winning combination of Piotr Beczala and a lavish new Zurich production of Lehár’s 1929 smash Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) would suggest maybe not. The main problem was not the production (seen June 25) but, in this case, the music itself. 

Lehár’s operettas compare unfavorably to those of Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II and Arthur Sullivan. Lehár, like his father, was an army bandmaster. This goes partway toward explaining his rather crude orchestration. Das Land des Lächelns has a few good tunes, typically with a catchy, repeated refrain. Indeed, repetition is Lehár’s default mode. “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (You are my heart’s delight),the hit song from this operetta, is not only sung at the emotional climax of the work but prefaced in the overture and repeated in the final act as “Dein war mein ganzes Herz” (You were my heart’s delight). This unashamed commercialism on Lehár’s part was very much a case of milking the cow dry. Das Land des Lächelns was perhaps the greatest triumph in a string of successes that Lehár enjoyed with Richard Tauber, the great Austrian lyric tenor of his time. The very name that was then coined to describe Lehár’s hit numbers for his star, Tauberlied (Tauber song), serves toemphasize that Lehár’s skill lay in writing tunes rather than a piece of musical drama, however slight.

The Zurich team put a lot of energy and creativity into this production. The sets and costumes of Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza were superb. A proscenium arch with a simple but beautiful Jugendstil curtain confronted the audience upon arrival, introducing us to a Weimar Republic/Busby Berkeley world of nostalgic make-believe. Zurich Opera’s general manager, Andreas Homoki, was also stage director of this production, in which many of his predilections were again evident: dividing the stage into different areas, treating lighthearted episodes as risible and, above all, mistrusting one of the central aspects of opera—what Julian Budden has termed “the illusion of suspended time.” When a character has an extended lyrical solo, Homoki often fills in the “gap” with a superabundance of physical activity. 

Das Land des Lächelns does not require great voices. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to luxuriate in the effortless stream of sound that Beczala poured out in the Tauber role of Sou-Chong. His diction was crystal clear, his breath control astounding, and he acted everybody else off the stage. Although rarely used, his pianissimo was wondrous. Having been charmed by soprano Julia Kleiter at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, I was gravely disappointed here by her Lisa. Her diction was impossible to decipher, and her lower register was completely smothered by the admittedly thick orchestration. 

In the subsidiary role of Gustl, Spencer Lang seized his opportunity in Act I to display a fine tenor voice. It would have been nice to hear Rebeca Olvera, as Gustl’s inamorata Princess Mi, open out her attractive soprano voice more than she did. Presumably her restraint was designed to illustrate the operetta’s idea of Chinese femininity. In the pit, Fabio Luisi and Philharmonia Zurich did as much as could be expected with Lehár’s orchestration. 

There is no doubt that the evening was a popular success. The audience rewarded each number with clapping and some of the chinoiserie with appreciative laughter, while Beczala’s famous aria deservedly brought the house down.  —Martin Wheeler

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