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Reviews

Franz Lehar: Das Land des Lächelns
07 May 2009

Franz Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns

Doris Sennefelder's booklet essay for this CPO recording of Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns details how close the composer was to Puccini.

Franz Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns

Camilla Nylund, Julia Bauer, Piotr Beczala, Alexander Kaimbacher, Alfred Berg, Theodor Weimer. Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Münchner Rundfunkorchester Ulf Schirmer, conducting.

CPO 777 303-2 [2CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

Both men were working on Chinese-themed works in the mid 1020s, and though Puccini did not live to complete Turandot, it premiered in 1926, with Lehar in attendance. Apparently Lehar then went back to an incomplete work, had the libretto revised, and by 1929, Das Land des Lächelns had its premiere. While in form an operetta, Lehar’s Lächelns asks for some strong voices, especially for the lead soprano, who must take the “Calaf”-role of falling in love with Chinese royalty, in this case, a prince named Sou-Chongs. Whereas Turandot gets a rare operatic happy ending, Lehar opted for a La Rondine-type finale, with Sou-Chongs and his German love, Lisa, realizing that their cultures are too different for their relationship to succeed.

Lehar’s score is dominated by its hit tune, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” but some parts reveal his aspiration to more serious music. When the scene shifts to China in the second act, a ballet sequence combines both Lehar’s Austrian tunefullness and some more exotic orchestration. As the drama deepens, one motif foreshadowing the sad ending bears a strong resemblance to the “Keikobad” theme from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Lehar certainly gave the role of Lisa operatic challenges. Camilla Nylund has a large enough voice to meet those challenges, but as recorded here, she tends to be shrill at the top. In a smaller soprano role of Sou-Chongs’s sister, Julia Bauer makes a more pleasant impression.

Piotr Beczala has made himself one of the world’s most in-demand tenors, and the beauty of his tone and intelligence of his delivery in the role of the prince come across in this recording. This is music that has attracted the world’s great tenors, and if Beczala doesn’t have the vocal charisma of a Tauber or Di Stefano, he stands in no one’s shadow.

Ulf Schirmer elicits a performance from the Müncher Rundfunkorchester that respects Lehar’s more serious intentions. The playing has color and elegance, presented in a warm and natural audio setting.

As relentlessly as opera companies flog The Merry Widow, a listen to this recording will make many wonder why Das Land des Lächelns doesn’t appear more often on opera stages, to the extent that it makes any appearances at all, in the US at least. For Beczala and the appealing score, this set deserves listeners. CPO provides a detailed summary with track references, but no text.

Chris Mullins

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