Lehár: Das Land De Lächelns / Schirmer, Et Al
After Franz Lehár’s initial success with Die lustige Witwe in 1905 – an operetta that harked back to the jolly 19th century works of Johann Strauss II, Millöcker and Suppé – he gradually changed direction. For him there were to be new dramaturgical models including the “lyric operetta” where the focus is on the ‘inner world of the figures’ as Doris Sennefelder puts it in her perspective building notes to this issue. Paganini, Der Zarewitsch and Friederike are all in this mould and in Das Land des Lächelns a further aspect comes to the fore, the cultural clash between East and West. The Viennese Lisa falls in love with the Chinese Prince Sou-Chong but she can’t accept the demands of Chinese values. As in every operetta of the traditional kind act 2 ends in bitter conflict. So does Die lustige Witwe but there everything is sorted out in the third act as Hanna and Danilo dance away to eternal happiness – or so we believe. In Das Land des Lächelns the conflict is resolved insofar as Sou-Chong allows Lisa to leave China and return to Vienna. He displays some humanity after all but this does not really lead to increased understanding.
The Chinese or ‘Oriental’ setting was by no means unique to opera and operetta of the late 19th and the early 20th century. Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore and Delibes’ Lakmé are well-known examples. Mascagni’s Iris and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly are others and even Gilbert and Sullivan went Asian in The Mikado. Later Lehár and Puccini actually worked in parallel on Chinese projects, Puccini with Turandot and Lehár with Die gelbe Jacke which was premiered in 1923. It was later revised and presented in new guise in 1929 with Richard Tauber in the main lead. Then it was a tremendous success. This was Das Land des Lächelns.
There is no denying that Lehár was a tremendously skilful composer. The Chinese allusions in the score are no less striking than corresponding music in Turandot. The procession with chorus at the beginning of act 2 could just as well have been written by Puccini. It is followed by a highly attractive Chinese ballet suite. Towards the end of the act the wedding procession is colourful and powerful, also incorporating quotations from Sou-Chong’s first act song Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz.
This recording is the fourth of a Lehár operetta from CPO to have come my way the last couple of years and it is in the main very successful. Ulf Schirmer, who also conducted Schön ist die Welt (review), secures excellent playing from the Munich Radio Orchestra. His choices of tempo seem unerringly right. He is very close to Otto Ackermann in the historical 1953 recording now on Naxos (review) and that is my benchmark. The long overture, with quotations from the music that follows, very clearly prepares the listener for a largely serious, even tragic play and the ballet suite in act 2 is excellently played. The chorus is also splendid. For once in a recording with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers the balance is such that one need not turn up the volume every time to hear the dialogue properly. Recorded at three live performances the technicians have succeeded in finding the best of both worlds and there is hardly any evidence of an audience. There is quite a lot of dialogue but it is separately tracked and for repeated listening this leaves the choice open for those who want to hear only the music numbers.
There is a delightful but small-voiced second couple with Julia Bauer’s Mi, who sings a charming dancing song in act 2, and Alexander Kaimbacher’s Gustl, who is agreeably lyrical in the duet with Mi in the same act. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as Lisa is a bit uneven and her uppermost notes tend to be rather hard and strained. She can also be lyrically appealing, not least in duet, and in the dark-tinted and operatic finale to act 2 she delivers strong dramatic singing. Prince Sou-Chong is sung by Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and he is plainly superb with a good ring in the more outgoing music. Most of all though he impresses through delicious lyric singing with carefully judged nuances that cannot be taken for granted in operetta.
I have complained in the past about sloppy presentation from CPO but in this respect they have made amends. They give us both a detailed track-list and a fairly good synopsis in three languages. I still think that a full libretto would be useful – even for German speakers.
I am not fully au fait with all existing alternative versions. Ackermann’s recording, mentioned above, with Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Loose and Kunz is a classic and at Naxos price unbeatable. Gedda’s stereo remake with Anneliese Rothenberger as Lisa is a splendid alternative and EMI’s third offer, Boskovsky’s recording with Jerusalem and Helen Donath, also has much to commend it. Robert Stolz with Rudolf Schock and Margit Schramm will certainly give pleasure, though I haven’t heard it, but for a brand new recording in excellent sound and a Sou-Chong to challenge even the great tenors on the other sets, this is well worth consideration.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 777303-2
Composer: Franz Lehár
Conductor: Ulf Schirmer
Orchestra/Ensemble: Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra
Performer: Alexander Kaimbacher, Alfred Berg, Camilla Nylund, Julia Bauer, Piotr Beczala, Theodor Weimer