Das Land des Lächlens
There is no live-performance genre harder to pull off in twenty-first century America than operetta. Geographically and temporally, we are so far removed from that perfumed world that most efforts to revive it land with a thud. The Met’s recent productions of Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow bear this out, despite the indisputable talents of those involved.
Kudos, then, to Dona D. Vaughn, artistic director of opera at Manhattan School of Music, for bringing back Franz Lehár’s delectable but little-seen Das Land des Lächlens as a Senior Opera Theater production, and for doing it with such a light, sensitive touch. Working with student singers in a bare-bones performance space on a small budget, she successfully evoked a sense of what made the Silver Age of Viennese operetta so appealing.
Das Land des Lächelns was not a success when it was originally performed, in Vienna in 1923, under the title Die Gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket). Lehár revised the operetta in 1929 for Berlin, where it was an enormous hit: it was performed all over Europe during the years immediately after the premiere and even reached Broadway for a brief run in 1946. Despite its popularity, Das Land des Lächelns has never achieved the repertory status of The Merry Widowin the U.S. It is best known for the refulgent tenor aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” introduced and popularized by operetta superstar Richard Tauber. The libretto, by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Lohner, is set in 1912, and tells of the thwarted romance and subsequent marriage of Lisa, a general’s daughter, to a Chinese Prince. Beginning in Vienna and ending in China, it has plenty of scope, warmth, and humor, but culminates on a tragic note with the lovers parting for good: ancient Chinese law dictates that the Prince must have multiple wives, and the situation is intolerable for Lisa. Lehár wraps the story in one exquisite melody after another; it is easy to see from this score why the man was known as the Puccini of operetta. At the April 3 performance in Manhattan School of Music’s Ades Performance Space, the audience, at least half of which was made up of young people, seemed thoroughly taken with this relic of bygone times. It helped that Vaughn wisely chose to have the spoken dialogue delivered in English and the sung numbers in the original German with supertitles.
And fortunately Vaughn had her student cast play it straight, without condescension or campiness. It could not have been easy — for the most part, these young singers were not yet totally at ease onstage. (Most of the major roles were double-cast, with the singers alternating the four performances.) Of the April 3 cast, the one cast member who emerged fully formed and ready to step onto the stage of a major opera house was tenor Brian Michael Moore, who played the leading role of Prince Sou Chong. His endearing presence was complemented by a ringing lyric tenor with style and flair worthy of Wunderlich, and his top notes soared effortlessly. He was equally proficient in delivering his spoken lines. His Lisa, Amy Kuckelman, sang in a gorgeous, Julie Andrews-style soprano with a beautiful bloom on her upper register. Like most of the rest of the cast, however, her bearing was somewhat wooden and her spoken dialogue awkward, riddled as it was with Valley Girl inflections. In the soubrette role of Sou Chong’s sister Mi, Elizabeth Chang sang sweetly and performed her assigned Asiatic dance moves with aplomb. As Lisa’s spurned suitor Gustav, British bass Gabriel Rollinson offered smooth tone and an attractive, towering stage presence. Chinese mezzo Wei Qi and Korean baritone Seok Jong Baek struggled heroically — and amusingly — with their spoken English dialogue; when they finally got a chance to sing, they acquitted themselves well.
Set and Lighting designer Kate Ashton effectively suggested the East-vs.-West atmosphere with minimal resources; Summer Lee Jack’s costumes helped set the colorful tone. The twenty-six-piece orchestra was led with a nice sense of Viennese style by conductor Jorge Parodi.