LAND DES LÄCHELNS in Essen: ridiculous direction can’t beat Lehár.

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Das Land des Lächelns. Operetta in three acts by Franz Lehár. Libretto by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner-Beda. Aalto-Musiktheater. 12-12-2019.

Prinz Sou-Chong: Carlos Cardoso
Lisa: Jessica Muirhead
Mi: Christina Clark
Graf Gustav von Pottenstein: Albrecht Kludszuweit
Tschang: Karel Martin Ludvik
Obereunuch: Rainer Maria Röhr

Conductor: Stefan Klingele
Direction: Sabine Hartmannshenn

Music:
Direction:

We visited Das Land des Lächelns in Essen, Germany, and looked forward to beautiful melodies such as “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”, “Wer hat die Liebe uns ins Herz gesenkt”, “Immer nur lächeln” and “Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz”. All these pearls are hung on a story about the widow Lisa, daughter of Count Lichtenfels, living in Vienna, who is being courted by the Chinese prince Sou-Chong. Together they leave for China, but soon Lisa feels homesick for the Viennese Rindsuppe, Topfenknödel and Kaiserschmarrn. (This nostalgia would also have bothered Pinkerton if he hadn’t made the wise decision to leave  butterfly Cio Cio San in her natural habitat. People are so quick to judge…) Lisa tries to escape from China with Count Gustl von Pottenstein. Their plan is foiled, but Prince Sou-Chong considers the working relationship with Lisa irreparably damaged and, somewhat reluctantly, lets her return to Vienna.

Carlos Cardoso (Sou-Chong/Pedro), Tänzerinnen und Tänzer Foto: Bettina Stöß

Difficult birth

This production was rather problematic for melody genius Franz Léhar. The first version, named Die gelbe Jacke, on a libretto by Victor Léon, was a flop. Léhar did not leave it at that, and brought Richard Tauber into position, as well as two new librettists, Fritz Löhner-Beda and Ludwig Herzer. The premiere under the title Das Land des Lächelns, on 10 October 1929 in the Berlin Metropol-Theater, finally brought the desired success.

The production in Essen suggests that the Nazis had something to do with Die gelbe Jacke’s flopping. Completely out of the blue, but a good reason to put a few Nazi uniforms on stage. Long time no see! Always good. In fact, Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels acutely saw the meaning and weight of this light music. He shouted at Richard Strauss, who had spoken with disdain about the operetta composer: “I heard that you called Lehár a street musician. […] Tomorrow’s culture is different from yesterday’s culture. You, Mr Strauss, are yesterday’s!” And: “Lehár owns the masses, not you!” [Source: Aart van der Wal, Opus Klassiek].

And before we forget: there was also (almost) nudity. Happily! Director Hartmannshenn had spoiled the People of Now once more.

Carefree enjoyment?

Of course, enjoying an operetta is no longer an option these days, especially when a white woman and a non-white man are involved. There must be some kind of injustice or political dimension to this. Director Sabine Hartmannshenn understood that very well. In her “interpretation” she takes the genesis of the work in tow – we don’t think we have encountered this aberration before. Ms Hartmannshenn herself believes that she shows us “how political situations can intervene in artistic processes”. “Then and now.” There are enough people who fall for that blatant nonsense. What in heaven’s name is wrong with just performing an operetta according to the libretto?

LAND DES LÄCHELNS
Christina Clark (Mi/Martha) Foto: Bettina Stöß

“If one still wants to attach importance to the operetta today, then one has to study the piece considerably,” says Hartmannshenn. “Only then are operettas topical.” A variation on the well-known quatsch of opera directors who want to secure their own indispensability. “Still attaching importance to operetta” places this art form in the category of old rotary dial telephones and flannel diapers. And why should operetta be “topical “? Anyone who appreciates this can gobble up topicality any day of the week; an operetta in particular offers diversion and a unique opportunity to NOT be occupied with topicality for once. We are not here at the political theatre of the sixties.

Change of conductors

In Essen, the first guest conductor of the house, Friedrich Haider, didn’t like the Hartmannshenn-doctrine either, and after crackling arguments during rehearsals, he put down his baton. Just before the premiere, Stefan Klingele, music director of the Musikalische Komödie Leipzig, took over the rehearsals. During the show, Klingele had his Essener Philharmonic Orchestra perfectly in hand and made it, at least musically, a great operetta evening. The four most important roles were all recruited from the ensemble of the opera of Essen. Carlos Cardoso made a solid but not always subtle impression as Sou-Chong. Jessica Muirhead (Lisa) has a very beautiful operetta voice, which lavishly spread the thrilling sentiments over the audience. Christina Clark (Mi) convinced with her experienced, still young soprano. And Albrecht Kludszuweit performed the role of Graf Gustav von Pottenstein skilfully, but with a certain resounding fear of heights.

In Essen we experienced a musically rich operetta evening, tainted with a large dose of monstrous director humbug.

Olivier Keegel (13-12-2019)

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Olivier Keegel
Olivier Keegel

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Bellini, Donizetti. Tito Schipa, Fritz Wunderlich, Ileana Cotrubas. Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Laurence Dale. Certified unmasker of directors’ humbug.

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