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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)

Le Pays du Sourire (The Land of Smiles) (1929) Romantic operetta (complete, with dialogue in French)
Michel Dens (Sou-Chong), Bernadette Antoine (Lisa), Bernard Sinclair (Gustave), Sylvia Paule (Mi), Gilbert Guimay (Tchang)
Rene Duclos Choirs
Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Lamoureux/Yvon Leenart/Edgard Doneux
Rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, April 1970
EMI 574 0972 [CD1 51.02 CD2 50.02]
Midprice Release date Jan 14th 02

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This set is one of the recent EMI reissues of operetta recordings with dialogue in the French translation.

Theatre directors and composers jumped on the successful oriental bandwagon which was started rolling by Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885), Sidney Jones’ The Geisha (1896) and San Toy (1899), and then ran into the 20th Century with Howard Talbot’s A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), Paul Rubens' Three Little Maids (1902) and Puccini’s grand opera Madame Butterfly (1904). These were then added to by Norton’s Chu Chin Chow (1916) and Puccini’s Turandot (1926), and so an oriental theme by Lehár seemed a natural choice of setting for assured box office success in 1929.

Lehár is remembered for his sterling score: The Merry Widow. Although always regarded as a light-weight composer, he introduced a new wave of operetta and may be regarded as one of the fathers of the ‘Musicals’. It is interesting how our musical academics have retreated from banning his works at international opera houses for we remember with some surprise that his Merry Widow was raised in status by being performed and relayed to Radio 3 from the Met. in New York two years ago.)

Putting the Merry Widow aside, Lehár came to fame with The Count of Luxembourg in 1909 and when a series of romantic operettas followed. In 1923 The Yellow Jacket (Die gelbe Jacke) was given a Chinese setting and it told a story of an oriental prince and a Viennese woman. Despite its spectacular staging the production was only moderately successful with around 100 performances. However, Lehár relaunched this work as The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lachelns/Le Pays du Sourire) in a much revised form six years later. The work then gained immortality. Traubner who has researched the operetta tells us that the secret of its successful relaunch was principally due to three items– firstly a much improved libretto, secondly a magnificent song for Sou-Chong, ‘Yours is my Heart alone’ (CD2 tk.10) and thirdly by giving the principal tenor part to a known star, Richard Tauber. In fact Tauber, the world-famous Austrian tenor of the '20s, brought fame to four of Lehar’s scores during this period (1925-9). His fame spread through the wide distribution of his 78 rpm records, many of which have been transferred to CD by Eklipse EKRCD5, EMI CDH7 64029-2, Nimbus NI 7830 & NI7833, Pearl GEMMCD9370 & GEMMCD9381.

Le Pays du Sourire (The Land of Smiles) is a straightforward tale of a prince, Sou Chong of China (Michel Dens), who woos and quickly weds Lisa, a lady of Vienna (Bernadette Antoine). He then takes her home to China at the end of the first Act. [In moving the action from West to East between Acts we are thus provided with the vehicle for a grand transformation of setting.] In Act 2 a twist to the previously happy climate of Act 1 reveals that Lisa has found she has difficulty in adapting to the ways of the East. Lisa sings her poignant song, ‘How I long to see my homeland again’(CD2 tk.12), a number skilfully composed to emotionally stir the audience. A final shock comes when the Prince declares that he intends to take more wives, and Chinese ones at that. A further twist lies in the fact that one of the Chinese princesses, Mi (Sylvia Paule) longs for some of the freedom that only the West can offer. She is provided with some lovely musical moments by Lehár in a both a solo and duet.

Franz Lehár was born in Hungary, yet became intensely Viennese in his outlook and musical style. His few great hits were bigger than those of his contemporaries and composing for the stage made him rich: this was helped of course when laws of copyright were established towards the end of the 19th Century. He was the son of a military bandmaster and picked up the musical flavours of Hungary, Prague, and Vienna or wherever the regiment was assigned. With a scratch education, he would have soaked up the military music his father was playing – Suppé, Strauss, and Italian Opera selections. At 12 he was a pupil at Prague’s Bohemian Conservatory of Music where Dvorák gave him encouragement to compose. By 18 he was playing in a German theatre orchestra in Barmen-Elberfeld which became a monotonous existence and so he joined the Army, ending up playing in his father’s band. By 20 he had become the youngest bandmaster of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, taking directorship of his own Regimental Band in northern Hungary.

Lehár began composing arrangements which the Viennese publishers found interesting. In 1896 he composed a grand Russian opera Kukuschka which toured in concert version (presumably) to Germany and Hungary. There were also unpublished operatic works from this period. He was invited to become musical director for a Vienna theatre and this move became the springboard for composing operas in the first decade of the 20th Century –Wiener Frauen (Viennese Women) and Der Rastelbinder (The Tinker). Lehár’s reputation really took off with The Merry Widow, an operetta where, unusually, its two librettists selected the composer. Of the composers that came forward, Lehár was considered the best on the strength of one song. The completed score was however not what the librettists expected and so the production was mounted with little expenditure on costumes and second-hand sets in case it failed. From a slow start the momentum picked up and eventually the show was restaged and took off, playing to packed houses in all the cities it visited.

Of Lehár’s music, one is aware of a Viennese tint to it, but its success can be attributed to the elegant flow of the songs and the easy orchestration which in the hit songs is kept free from complex colouring. Here the orchestral sections tend to follow the melody line to allow tuneful listening and immediate comprehension on a first hearing: it is in fact a ‘pop’ style of the day where underlying textures are thin and counter-melodies do not disturb concentration on the tune. Lehár was also conscious of a need to show off his celebratory singers, principally Tauber, with whom he had formed a close friendship. This was achieved in the same way that the Italians used with sensuous singing provided by dynamics and drawn out (high) phrases. Elsewhere the score contains some vivid oriental colours, including the Puccini-like effect of playing fifths in parallel with the melody line by the wind section. It is said that Lehár used more instruments than other composers; also, he subdivided the strings more than any operetta composer had done before (This can be heard in the introduction to Prince Sou-Chong's Act 1 song, 'Smiling'.)

The operetta’s musical numbers are distributed fairly evenly over the five soloist, apart from Sou-Chong who takes a dominant rôle by singing in more numbers. Michel Dens (Prince Sou-Chong) is ideally suited to the rôle. As a lyrical tenor who provides languid phrasing with a rich warm tone, he uses dynamics to good effect and has the strength of voice and stamina to provide a good Tauber substitute. (Dens also sang in EMI Pathé’s production of Véronique in 1969.) The confidence expressed in the Prince’s hit number ‘Yours is my Heart alone’ is just right for his character (CD2 tk.10). The sweetness of character which Bernadette Antoine conveys in her rôle of Lisa is particularly charming. She is a light soprano with velvety, pure tone which matches the naivety associated with her part. In the duets of Antoine & Dens (try CD2 tk.4) the harmonious chemistry between the two is good, yet the balance between them is disappointing where she is occasionally drowned by the closer miking/strength of Dens. Sylvia Paule is an extremely light and thin soprano yet is well suited to the part of the diffident Princess Mi. Hear her in Mi’s Pagoda song and dance (CD2 tk.6) which also illustrates how creative Lehár can be in this score. The chorus provides strong support.

This 2 CD set is a reissue of LPs released in the 1970. The master tape transfer to CD is excellent. As with other CD sets in the series, the track indexing can be inaccurate in places. With this mid-price issue, brief notes in French are included.

Raymond Walker

Further reading: "Operetta", Traubner (Oxford 1883); ‘Musicals", Ganzl (Carlton 1995)

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