August 23, 2018
(+++) SMILING THROUGH TEARS
Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns. Piotr Beczala, Julia Kleiter, Rebeca Olvera, Spencer Long, Cheyne Davidson, Martin Zysset; Chor der Oper Zürich and Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Accentus Music DVD. $33.99.
The source of one of the greatest love songs in all operetta, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, Franz Lehár’s 1929 tragicomedy Das Land des Lächelns (“The Land of Smiles”) is more difficult to stage nowadays than Die lustige Witwe and some of his other works. The reason is that it is not only about thwarted love but also about a clash of cultures – those being European and stylized century-ago Chinese. This is also one of the most “Puccini-an” of Lehár’s works: he and Puccini were friends, and their music was often compared (usually to Lehár’s disadvantage). In Das Land des Lächelns we have a near-operatic score permeated with the pathos, soaring themes and tremendously heightened emotions for which Puccini is renowned. Indeed, the underlying theme of Das Land des Lächelns is not all that different from the basis of Madame Butterfly, although Lehár’s sad ending is one of pathos rather than tragedy and more closely resembles the conclusion of Eugene Onegin.
The impossibility of East and West ever understanding each other fully is foundational to Das Land des Lächelns, and the story of Prince Sou-Chong (Piotr Beczala) and the very Viennese Lisa (Julia Kleiter) plays out as an example of the inevitable clash of cultures. There are also repeated references to the impossibility of a Märchen (fairy tale) in real life – the same theme that Lehár used in other late works, notably his final one, Giuditta. In Das Land des Lächelns, the ironic title refers to what was seen as the Chinese people’s habit of always smiling enigmatically despite their inner feelings. This better reflects the actions and emotions of the work than did its original title, Die gelbe Jacke, referring to the robe of office whose assumption by Sou-Chong brings on the destruction of his and Lisa’s love (Lehár’s original version of the work, which dates to 1923, actually had a happy ending, which did not appeal to audiences so soon after World War I; hence the revision).
Unlike the specificity of Japan in The Mikado, the “Chinese-ness” in Das Land des Lächelns is important mainly as a way to show an unbridgeable gap across which love may attempt to reach, even if it ultimately fails. Therefore, the “China” elements of staging can be downplayed, allowing Lehár’s very effective use of pentatonic writing to carry listeners to the Orient with more subtlety. This helps resolve the issue of the typecasting of China potentially making modern audiences uncomfortable; and this is the approach taken by Opernhaus Zürich in the production, led by Fabio Luisi, that is now available on an Accentus Music DVD. There is a single set for all three acts, with a prepossessing pillar midstage and long sets of steps to each side – actually a continuous staircase, as becomes clear when stage director Andreas Homoki has some characters go up one side and then come down the other. The curtain itself, grasped and pulled by the performers, becomes part of the stage setting; there are also a few pieces of easily movable furniture; and that is all that set designer Wolfgang Gussmann uses. The same spare approach applies to the costumes, designed by Gussmann with Susana Mendoza, and the lighting, handled by Franck Evin: everything in the production is understated, not just its Chinese elements. This places the music and the emoting of the singers in the forefront and encourages them to act, or act out, all the work’s themes and intricacies.
This, unfortunately, is where the production falls short. The Opernhaus Zürich team, which also includes chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger, choreographer Arturo Gama, and Kathrin Brunner in charge of dramaturgy, has decided to have the music be paramount to the point of excluding virtually all the dialogue – there is perhaps five minutes of spoken material in the entire production. This puts too heavy a burden on the musical numbers and turns the work (which really is almost as much opera as operetta) into a revue, and one without much coherence. The truncated opening barely establishes Lisa as a strong, self-assured European woman, and her immediately following scene with Sou-Chong, including their subtle flirtation while drinking tea, is bland and unconvincing as a result; the fact that Beczala and Kleiter sing well but have virtually no onstage chemistry compounds the difficulty. The peculiar removal of the narrative also undermines the role of “second couple” Gustl (Spencer Long, who looks distinctly uncomfortable throughout the evening) and Mi (Rebeca Olvera). Lehár had the fascinating habit of giving the “second-string” lovers in his works some of the best music and most-telling observations – think, for instance, of Camille’s Wie eine Rosenknospe, a highlight of Die lustige Witwe. In Das Land des Lächelns, it is Gustl and Mi who proclaim the sameness, despite cultural differences, of Meine Liebe, deine Liebe, but here that duet comes across as an emotionless trifle; the touch of Act III levity, Zig, zig, zig, makes no sense whatsoever; and Gustl’s farewell to Mi, intended to mirror the severing of the Lisa-Sou-Chong bond, is just plain silly, featuring multiple tuxedo-wearing men acting like old vaudevillians (or vaude-villains).
So what Opernhaus Zürich presents here is basically a series of heartfelt arias intended, in and of themselves, to tell the cultural-conflict story of Das Land des Lächelns. They do not. But the music itself is gorgeous, and that is what saves the production. There are so few worthwhile visuals that a DVD is scarcely necessary, although it must be said that a bit of stage business featuring the Chief Eunuch (Martin Zysset) is worth seeing, and there is a single instance of delightful costuming and levity in the Act II Im Salon zur blau’n Pagode. Listeners who close their eyes for the rest of this production will not miss much and may even gain a sense of the music’s emotional intensity – especially in the singing by Beczala, one of today’s very best operetta tenors. Luisi is not an ideal conductor for this music – even in the sparkling overture, he over-stretches some sections while underplaying the contrast between the serious music and the lighter tunes – but his sense of pacing of individual numbers is good, and he balances the orchestra well: the Philharmonia Zürich at times seems more involved in the material than do the singers. Das Land des Lächelns is not staged nearly often enough for a work of its quality, and its outdated portrayal of a China that never really existed except in the Occidental mind is surely the reason. But it is not necessary to force the work into uncomfortable contortions by, for example, insisting that Chinese people perform all the Chinese roles (Beczala does not look the slightest bit Oriental), or by (as here) removing the narrative because parts of it are awkward and/or outdated. Das Land des Lächelns is not only a fount of beautiful music but also a work with a thoughtful story that is still worth hearing. An intelligent staging that points to the universality of the material would be a far more involving and engaging experience than this Opernhaus Zürich production. But there is enough beauty and emotion here, especially in Beczala’s delivery (with Dein ist mein ganzes Herz an inevitable and well-deserved show-stopper) and to a lesser extent in Kleiter’s, to show that Lehár has the power to transcend even an indifferently staged visit to the land of inscrutable, emotion-concealing smiles.