November 01, 2007


Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns. Camilla Nylund and Julia Bauer, sopranos; Piotr Beczala and Alexander Kaimbacher, tenors; Alfred Berg, baritone; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

      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 Das Land des Lächelns as well – precipitating the lovers’ eventual breakup. But while Viktor Léon’s original libretto contrived a happy reunion at the end, the revision by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Beda-Löhner leaves the lovers sundered and forever apart.

      Thus, Das Land des Lächelns lies in the series of Lehár operettas in which societal pressures overcome genuine love. Paganini (focusing on the famed violinist-composer), Der Zarewitsch (about the young Czar Nicholas II) and Friederike (dealing with young Goethe) have similar themes. But the lovers in Das Land des Lächelns are fictional characters – and they stand for the Eastern and Western worlds.

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 China is “ein andere Welt” – another world – but Lisa insists it is a land of wonder. Prince Sou-Chong (Piotr Beczala) introduces himself with “Immer nur lächeln” – “Ever a smile” – explaining that in his culture, one always smiles outwardly even when one’s heart is bursting with love…or breaking. Lisa and Sou-Chong discover their mutual love just as Sou-Chong is notified that he must return to China, having been elected prime minister. Lisa goes with him as his wife – but after they arrive and Sou-Chong receives the yellow jacket of authority, he is told that he must by custom take four wives, all of them Chinese; Lisa does not count. Bound by his background, he agrees, shattering Lisa’s heart. Sou-Chong then informs her that as a woman in China, she has no rights and must do as he commands. Gustl’s timely arrival lets her plan an escape, but Sou-Chong catches them – only to agree to let them go, remaining behind with an enigmatic smile on his face.

The traditional “second couple” of the operetta faces a similar split: while in China, Gustl becomes enamored of Sou-Chong’s sister, Mi (Julia Bauer). She and Gustl first flirt, then develop genuine affection for each other – but they too realize they can never be united, and at the end she is as bereft as her brother.

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, Das Land des Lächelns is an effective and very touching work, and this recording mines its melancholy with style and sensitivity.

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