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LEHÁR: Das Land des Lächelns

DVD Button Kleiter, Olvera; Beczała, Lang; Philharmonia Zürich, Chor der Oper Zürich, Luisi. Production: Homoki. Accentus Music ACC20435, 103 mins., subtitles

Recordings Das Land des Lachelns Onstage hdl 219
Smile’s people: Beczała and Kleiter in Zurich
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T+T FOtografie/Toni Suter
Recordings Land des Lachelns Cover 219

DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS  presents significant problems for today’s producers, and its old-fashioned quality is only the beginning: after all, in opera terms, Lehár’s 1929 operetta is relatively new, although the tropes of early-twentieth-century operetta now seem mustier than those of opera itself. The real challenge is the work’s Orientalism. In its portrayal of the ill-starred romance of a Chinese prince and an aristocratic Viennese woman, the show presents its hero, Sou-Chong, and his countrymen through distinctly Western eyes. Their behavior is sometimes childlike, sometimes savage, but always exotic. Although the racism of the work is no doubt innocent, it cannot have occurred to its creators to look on their Chinese characters as anything other than emissaries from a mythic realm. 

Andreas Homoki’s response to the problem is to place the work in quotes. Like other contemporary directors embarrassed by their source material (such as Mary Zimmermann and her Met Sonnambula), he has elected to present not Das Land des Lächelns itself but a representation of the piece in performance—a show within a show. His 2017 Zurich Opera production treats the work as a hundred-minute-long MGM production number. Wolfgang Gussmann’s set consists of little more than a shiny black parquet floor and a giant curved staircase, ready for showgirls to descend. The effect is chilly, not simply because of the black-on-black color scheme but because the production retreats into camp, rather than inviting us to engage in the sentiment at the work’s core. Meanwhile, given Homoki’s apparent sensitivity to the charge of cultural appropriation, I’m puzzled by the “yellow-face” eyeliner for the Chinese characters. Perhaps the production concept excuses the racist trope: it places the blame not on Homoki and company but on an unspecified team working in some other place, at some other time? But I’m not convinced.

The production’s equivocal treatment raises a question: why perform the piece at all? Happily, the musical performance provides the answer. Lehár’s score is always engaging and often ravishing, combining Viennese schmaltz operetta, Ravelian—even Stravinskyan—harmonic ideas, evocations of China that are surprisingly close to Puccini’s in Turandot and echoes of Tin Pan Alley, blown in from across the ocean. Fabio Luisi’s reading holds all these elements in delicate balance, his work characterized by a relaxed control that lets Lehár’s dance rhythms take hold. 

Prince Sou-Chong became the signature role of its creator, Richard Tauber. In Piotr Beczała, the present disc has a tenor with similar matinée-idol appeal and the big lyric sound to convey the lovesick hero’s ardor. “Dein is mein ganzes Herz” is, as might be expected, his big moment—a heartfelt evocation of a bygone era. Julia Kleiter, as his inamorata, Lisa, uses her complexly mottled lyric soprano to make Lehár’s melodies luxuriant. In the comic-relief role of Sou-Chong’s sister Mi, Rebeca Olvera manages (against all odds) to be winning but not cutesy. Spencer Lang, as her suitor Gustav, uses his pleasing light tenor and physical deftness to embody an old-school theatrical juvenile. Das Land des Lächelns may be “light opera,” but the approach of all the performers is thoughtful and committed. Homoki’s production holds us at a distance, but Luisi and his singers draw us into the work’s tender heart. —Fred Cohn



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