One of the most consistently popular of Franz Lehár’s later operettas, Das Land des Lächelns (“The Land of Smiles”) contains one of the “greatest hits” the composer ever wrote: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (“Thine Is My Heart Alone”), which practically ever tenor, whether operetta and opera specialist, sings at one time or another. It also contains some of Lehár’s most carefully constructed music, which the composer uses to reflect the unbridgeable gap between East and West that the central lovers of the work try but ultimately fail to overcome.
This is an excellent complete recording, with well-matched voices, top-notch pacing by conductor Ulf Schirmer and fine playing by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. Das Land des Lächelns dates to 1929 and is an unhappy-ending reworking of a happy-ending 1923 operetta called Die gelbe Jacke (“The Yellow Jacket”). That jacket, symbol of ascendancy to the highest political post in 1912 Imperial China, figures in
The operetta opens with the longest and most elaborate overture in late Lehár – a piece that sets out the entire musical argument of the operetta through its contrast of Western-style music with sections written in pentatonic, percussion-suffused Chinese style. Lisa (Camilla Nylund) enters to a waltz and proclaims her hope for love; when it is offered by her longtime friend, Gustl (Alexander Kaimbacher), she turns it down, being preoccupied – she knows not why – by a Chinese tune. Gustl warns her that
The traditional “second couple” of the operetta faces a similar split: while in
All the singers, including Alfred Berg as both Graf Lichtenfels (Lisa’s father) and Tschong (Sou-Chong’s uncle and the upholder of tradition), sing and emote effectively, but it is the music that knits this story together. Lehár’s careful research into Oriental musical style pays off handsomely, allowing him to create distinctive and contrasting arias for Lisa and Sou-Chong; making her singing along with his tune in Act I all the more poignant; and also letting Lehár neatly characterize Mi, whose ditty about desiring more freedom than Chinese women are allowed is the lightest and most upbeat number in the operetta. Although the Act III conclusion is a tearjerker, there is more pathos than tragedy in Sou-Chong’s eventual renunciation of his claim on Lisa. Still, the music effectively conveys depths of emotion that Sou-Chong himself conceals behind his smile. Interestingly for non-German speakers, the lack of a libretto in this CPO edition – although certainly unfortunate – is less important than in other Lehár operettas, since the summary of the action is good, the dialogue is shorter than usual, and it is truly the music that tells the greater part of the story. All in all,