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Franz LEHÁR (1870–1948)
Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) (1929)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Lisa; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Prince Sou-Chong; Erich Kunz (baritone) – Gustl; Emmy Loose (soprano) – Mi; Otakar Kraus (baritone) – Tschang; Felix Kent (speaking part) – Fu-Li; André Mattoni (speaking part) – Servant
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Otto Ackermann
Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, 17th, 19th – 21st April and 28th June 1953
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Appendix: Excerpts from Operettas by Lehár Performed by Legendary Singers

Die Lustige Witwe: Vilja Lied (Dusolina Giannini, soprano) Rec. 13th September 1938; Frasquita: Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett (Richard Tauber, tenor) Rec. 24th May 1927; Der Zarewitsch: Einer wird kommen (Ester Rethy, soprano, Vienna Symphony Orchestra/The Composer) Rec. January 1942; Friederike: Sah’ ein Knab’ ein Röslein steh’n – Oh Mädchen, mein Mädchen (Leonardo Aramesco, tenor) Rec. ca. 1933; Eva: Wär es auch nichts als ein Augenblick (Lotte Lehmann, soprano) Rec. 3rd September 1938; Das Land des Lächelns: Selections (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano and Rupert Glawitsch, tenor; Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses, Berlin/Walter Lutze) Rec. 17th August 1940; Paganini: Selections (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano and Rupert Glawitsch, tenor; Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses, Berlin/Hansgeorg Otto) Rec. 2nd September 1939; Schön ist die Welt: Ich bin verliebt (Ester Rethy, soprano; Vienna Symphony Orchestra/The Composer) Rec. January 1942 – Liebste, glaub’ an mich – Schön ist die Welt (Marcel Wittrisch, tenor) Rec. 12th December 1930; Der Fürst der Berge: Kindchen, sie hübsch brav – Alt und jung (Irene Eisinger, soprano; Orchestra/Arthur Guttman) Rec. ca. 1930; Giuditta: Du bist meine Sonne – Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert (Helge Rosvaenge, tenor) Rec. January 1943 – Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss (Jarmila Novotna, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/The Composer) Rec. 11th January 1934
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111016-17 [74:03 + 78:21]

With the exception of Die lustige Witwe which together with Die Fledermaus has claims to be the best operetta ever, Das Land des Lächelns is the most popular of all the Lehár stage works.

Ironically much of the music for Das Land des Lächelns was written several years earlier, in 1923, for Die gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket), which was a flop. However in 1929 Lehár reworked it to a new libretto and with Richard Tauber in the central role of Prince Sou-Chong it became a resounding success. More serious, even tragic, than Die Witwe, it is filled with memorable songs and a scoring that is far more advanced than in most other operettas. Partly set in China it can be tempting to compare it to Puccini’s Turandot, written at about the same time. Although the differences are obvious, with Puccini’s harmonic language considerably bolder, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Lehár emerges second best. The orchestral and choral introduction to the second act can confidently stand comparison with Puccini.

It is gratifying to be able to report that this 1953 recording offers excellent sound, catching the glorious playing of the Philharmonia in their early splendour. Mark Obert-Thorn, working with clean source material, has conjured forth so much orchestral colour that one hardly misses the greater depth and the wider frequency range of more modern stereo recordings. With Otto Ackermann being a sure-footed operetta conductor the music gets its true rhythmic lilt. The overture – a potpourri of some of the best songs – is an irresistible opener, whetting the appetite for what is to follow.

And when the curtain is up the plot unfolds in a relaxed but never clogging fashion. The spoken dilogue is reduced to a minimum, just enough to make the action hang together, which is a blessing when one listens to it the third time, not to mention the twenty-third. The soloists mostly deliver their spoken lines with feeling and natural inflection. The young Gedda may sound a little stiff compared to his more experienced collegues but in the main he is also well in the picture. When it comes to the singing this could hardly be bettered. Gedda’s first appearance is soft and inward and the following duet with Lisa, Bei einem Tee à deux – (Lehár’s answer to "Tea for Two") the second stanza of which is cut by the way – is so lovely sung with fresh, lyrical beautiful tone. Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz is more outgoing, showing his brilliant top notes while the set-piece Dein ist mein ganzes Herz is surprisingly restrained until towards the end he unleashes all his tenoral gold. Perhaps the most memorable singing in the whole operetta is Gedda’s last few lines, deeply felt and filled with pain and remorse – this is really heart-rending.

Schwarzkopf, always at her best in Viennese operetta, has that remarkable mix of glittering charm and lightness on one hand and the lieder-singer’s attention to verbal inflection and musical nuance. The "Tea for Two" duet as well as Wer hat die Liebe uns in Herz geschenkt in Act 2 are good examples but whenever she appears she sounds so right and natural. When in the end of Act 2 she realizes that Sou-Chong really is going to take four wives she hurls Ich hasse dich! (I hate you!) straight into his face with a disgusting snarl. Here she is the great tragedienne, the operetta equivalent of Callas’s Tosca.

As Gustl Erich Kunz is so warm of tone and so unaffectedly natural in his singing – this is no "serious" opera star letting his hair down. Charm is definitely a word that can be applied to anything Kunz ever did; his suave delivery of the third act duet with Mi being further evidence. And Emmy Loose is a perfect soubrette Mi, elegant, bright-toned and – charming. Otakar Kraus displays a fine dramatic baritone in Tschang’s few lines, making this a very strong recommendation to anyone wanting a more or less complete "Land of Smiles".

Competition isn’t too keen. About fifteen year later EMI released a stereo remake, again with Gedda as the Prince, his then regular operetta partner Anneliese Rothenberger as Lisa and the lovely Renate Holm as Mi. It is a good version but it is grander, heavier, lacking in what is the hallmark of the present version – charm and Viennese elegance. Even later EMI recorded it again, if I’m not mistaken, with Siegfried Jerusalem as Sou-Chong. I haven’t heard that one. Finally in 2001 Arte Nova released a somewhat reshuffled version from the Mörbisch Festival with practically all the music but no spoken dialogue on one superbudget CD. It is conducted by Rudolf Bibl, one of the truly great operetta Kapellmeisters during the last forty years or so. I heard him conduct Die lustige Witwe in Vienna as long ago as 1972 and again in 2002. He knows his Lehár of course, but the singing is nowhere near the standard on either of the other two.

If somebody still needs to be persuaded to acquire this set, there is a tempting "filler": an appendix of more than 66 minutes with legendary (and a few not very legendary) singers performing excerpts from Lehár operettas. And I could fill another two or three pages with deeper analyses of these, but apart from a few random comments I will leave it to the prospective buyers to find out what a treasure-trove this is. Here are a number of tenors; well schooled, steady, rounded voices, phrasing well but maybe too monochrome in the German manner of the era: Tauber of course, inimitable, the very similarly-sounding Wittrisch, the lesser-known Aramesco and Glawitsch, good singers both, and maybe best of all, Helge Rosvaenge, Danish-born but spending most of his long career in Germany, singing with seductive Schmaltz and with the most brilliant top notes.

We also hear Dusolina Giannini, more known for lyric-dramatic Italian roles like Aida, and her full-throated version of the Vilja-Lied is quite heavy, but it is a classy voice. Hungarian Ester Rethy with the composer conducting has a natural operetta voice, agile and beautiful with gleaming top; the pretty-voiced Irene Eisinger with excellent coloratura and perfect trill – and it is good to hear something from Der Fürst der Berge for once; the delectable Jarmila Novotna as Giuditta, the part she created at the Vienna State Opera, here recorded with Lehár at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. It should be noted though that this is not track 22 as indicated in the booklet; it is track 20.

Finally: the two supreme stars – Lotte Lehmann in her fiftieth year still retaining her silvery, almost girlish tone and phrasing Feldmarschallin-like; it is easy to hear the similarities with the very young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, here in two long potpourris, recorded in 1939 and 1940 (surely her earliest?). The sound on these Telefunken sides is variable but we can still recognize the typical Schwarzkopf timbre and her very individual way with the phrases. There is not a dull number here and the restoration of the originals is up to Ward Marston’s usual standard.

Still hesitating? OK, I give up – and I haven’t got the time to bargain any more. I must go back to my listening room and play a few tracks from this Desert-Island set before bedtime.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Ian Lace



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