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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) (1929) [99.24]
Piotr Beczała (tenor) – Prince Sou-Chong; Julia Kleiter (soprano) – Lisa Lichtenfels; Rebeca Olvera (Mi), Spencer Lang (Count Gustav von Pottenstein, known as Gustl), Cheyne Davidson (Tschang) & Martin Zysset (Chief Eunuch)
Chor der Oper Zürich/Ernst Raffelsberger
Philharmonia Zürich/Fabio Luisi
Andreas Homoki (stage director); Wolfgang Gussmann (set & costume designer); Susana Mendoza (costume designer); Franck Evin (lighting designer); Arturo Gama (choreography); Kathrin Brunner (dramaturgy); Tieni Burkhalter (video)
rec. live June 2017 Opernhaus Zürich
Picture Format DVD: NTSC 16:9
Sound Formats DVD: PCM Stereo 48kHz/16bit; Dolby Digital 5.1, 48kHz; DTS 5.1, 48kHz
Subtitles: German (original language), English, French, Japanese, Korean
ACCENTUS MUSIC DVD ACC20435 [103 mins]

Few works have endured until today from German operetta’s heyday, but Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) is a clear exception. Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner-Beda wrote the German language text based on Victor Léon’s original libretto. Here the Accentus label present stage director Andreas Homoki’s dazzling production of Das Land des Lächelns starring Piotr Beczała and Julia Kleiter filmed live in 2017 at Opernhaus Zürich.

An Austro/Hungarian composer Lehár’s, comic operetta Die gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket), with text by Victor Léon was premièred in 1923 in Vienna and, proving ineffective, was quickly withdrawn. Employing the same basic plot Lehár assisted by Herzer and Löhner-Beda markedly revised and shortened the score reinvigorating the work, now newly titled Das Land des Lächelns which was introduced six years later at the Metropol-Theater, Berlin. In this new operetta, the star Austrian tenor Richard Tauber created the role of Prince Sou-Chong who in act two was given the additional song ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ (You are my heart’s delight) which soon became a smash international hit. It was a signature song, known as a Tauber-Lied, written in operettas especially to display the qualities of Tauber’s voice.

With heroine Viennese Countess Lisa marrying her lover Sou-Chong, a Chinese Prince, the plot concerns cultural differences and a love that becomes impossible. Uncommonly for operetta there is no happy ending (unlike Die gelbe Jacke) to take the audience home suitably elated. Lehár and Puccini were friends, sharing mutual admiration and to my ears in Das Land des Lächelns the Far Eastern flavour of the music surely owes a debt to the Italian composer’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly.

Set in Venna (act one) and Peking (acts two and three), for this new production at Opernhaus Zürich stage director Andreas Homoki and his set designer Wolfgang Gussmann use the theme of a revue in a 1920s variety theatre in Paris with an elegant art deco set. Dominating the set is a great curved staircase around a very wide, fluted column all in black marble that seems reminiscent of a Hollywood dance extravaganza from the days when troupes of high-kicking showgirls were masterminded by the likes of director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. The set is notably free of encumberments containing only a couple of Chesterfield armchairs. In creating this condensed production director Homoki believed that many Lehár musicals mirror the plan of grand opera and that much of the storyline can be followed through the songs without dialogue, most of which he removed as he also removed several subordinate roles.

The costumes by Gussmann and Susana Mendoza are striking, both finely detailed and beautifully designed in the style of the fashionable 1920s. In upper-class Vienna circles it’s top hat and tails for the male chorus with the blonde-haired women’s chorus in black evening dresses and also designer tennis dresses. In Peking it’s black kimonos and gold coolie hats for the men and for the black-haired women it’s red cheongsams, tight fitting with slide spilt and all using fans. Lisa with her red hair is beautifully robed throughout, varying from top hat and tails to an elegant light green evening dress. Sou-Chong switches continents elegantly by placing a long ornately decorated man’s kimono (either in ruby or gold) over his tail coat.

No singer today can shift from playing Lohengrin to Prince Sou-Chong so outstandingly and seamlessly as Piotr Beczała (interview). Clearly relishing the leading role of Sou-Chong which could have been written especially for him, the handsome Polish tenor, such a splendid actor, does suave and romantic so convincingly. Beczała’s voice is in outstanding condition, demonstrating his polished and unwavering technique that allows his smooth production of attractive colours with such irresistible clarity and freshness. Beczała is highly familiar with the work of Richard Tauber having in 2013 released his album Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber on Deutsche Grammophon. It’s no surprise that Beczała’s rendition of the memorable ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ is an unqualified success. I know less about Julia Kleiter, who I note has experience of singing in a number of international opera houses, and her voice is a good fit for the role of Lisa the daughter of Count Lichtenfels. Looking suitably glamourous the German soprano sings attractively and with expression, careful to make every note count.

As Mi, sister of Sou-Chong, Rebeca Olvera, a Opernhaus Zürich ensemble member, looks stylish and sexy in a traditional red cheongsam. Both vocally and comedically this an admirable performance from the Mexican soprano. Amongst the lead roles, rather less convincing is Spencer Lang as Count Gustav von Pottenstein, known as Gustl. In a light brown, three-piece tweed suit with plus-fours Gustl looks like a European countryman out shooting game, or more formally wearing top hat and tails. Also a member of the Opernhaus Zürich ensemble, Lang seems a tad uncomfortable in the role with everything feeling adequate if a touch workaday. Both wearing long black quilted coats and traditional mandarin caps Cheyne Davidson as Tschang and Martin Zysset the Chief Eunuch make a fine comedy duo and do all that is asked of them.

Making a significant impression assured maestro Fabio Luisi draws warm and compelling playing from the impressive Philharmonia Zürich, and the Chor der Oper Zürich has been noticeably well rehearsed by Ernst Raffelsberger. I like the way maestro Luisi allowed space for audience applause after arias. Filmed live in June 2017 at Opernhaus Zürich, video director Tieni Burkhalter has selected his shots well, choosing not to come up too close to the singers. I tend to think that even short glimpses of the audience add to the atmosphere of a live performance, but no audience can be seen on the film; only the stage and orchestra pit are visible. It’s a shame no bonus filmed footage is provided, such as interviews from principals Piotr Beczała and Julia Kleiter or Andreas Homoki’s creative team. No problems with the picture quality on this DVD but the sound which comes in three options stereo, dolby and surround, although acceptable, doesn’t quite have the clarity I was expecting. The accompanying booklet contains a helpful interview with Andreas Homoki, there’s a short note from conductor Luisi and an essay about the operetta by Claus Spahn. No separate synopsis is provided although Homoki’s interview does mention the plot. There is a full track listing with the identity of the character in the booklet. But on screen although the access points match the track listing curiously they are not numbered which is something I haven’t encountered before.

Entertaining from start to finish, Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) in Andreas Homoki’s colourful staging is imbued with dream-like escapism with Piotr Beczała in magnificent form.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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