Das Land des Lächelns ("The Land of Smiles"), which premiered in Berlin in 1929, is one of Franz Lehár’s late operettas, and to the modern audience, its rich symphonic density is reminiscent of great film scores. Indeed, intendant Andreas Homoki’s new production at the Opernhaus Zurich was sheer Hollywood. With its generous quotient of glitz and glamour, 1920s costumes − both Western and Chinese – glut of fluorescent colour and sublime lighting, it might well have been the Ziegfeld Follies meeting the Land of Oz. 

Prince Sou-Chong and his ladies © Toni Suter
Prince Sou-Chong and his ladies
© Toni Suter

The story revolves around a star-crossed love story: during a sojourn in Vienna, Chinese prince Sou-Chong meets the well-born Lisa. The two fall in love, and when Sou-Chong is appointed Chinese prime minister, she follows him to Peking. Confronted there with strange customs and ancient traditions − including his having to take four designated wives − she realizes that the incompatibility of the two worlds and the “torment” of homesickness prevent them from sharing a future. And while her Austrian friend Count Gustav (“Gustl”), who joined her in China, is taken with the young princess Mi, they too are separated when the “foreigners” return to their homeland.

Librettists have always been fascinated by the allure of the foreign, not to mention the psychological and social conflicts it may affect. The same could clearly be said of film. Even in the adaption of Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”, the young Judy Garland dreamed of “Somewhere over the rainbow” but clicked her ruby slippers together and chanted “There’s no place like home” to get back to Kansas. Similarly, Lehár’s operetta owes its great popularity to one song in particular: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (My heart is yours alone), which the gifted tenor Piotr Beczała sang in the lead of this new production. He took the stage with command, giving the signature aria a generous dash of much-loved schmaltz. Beczała returns to Zurich Opernhaus as something of a “local boy”; he was a member of its fine International Opera Studio (IOS) before reaching the greater heights in his widely international career and has since become a Swiss citizen.

Prince Sou-Chong and his ladies © Toni Suter
Prince Sou-Chong and his ladies
© Toni Suter

Julia Kleiter sang Lisa, perhaps most compellingly in her duet with Beczała, “Do you feel the breath of Heaven, as I do?” at the beginning of Act 2. In perfect harmony, vocally and physically, this was the most erotic of the encounters between the two leads and the most engaging of melodies. Otherwise suitably puritanical in her role, Kleiter’s mellifluous voice seamlessly bridged her range changes, and the contrast between her passion and ultimate pain were palpable. I had to swallow twice when she chided her lover with “You humiliated me, who left father, friends and homeland behind.”

Under Conductor Fabio Luisi’s surefire baton, the Philharmonia Zurich also excelled, barring the two or three times its volume contended with Kleiter’s projection. Nonetheless, the orchestra’s was an enlightened and precise rendition, and concertmaster, solo oboe, harp, flute and cello all deserve particular commendation.

In other roles, Rebeca Olvera shone as Princess Mi, her voice consistently clear as a bell, and she showed a youthful vivacity that was highly refreshing. Further, Spencer Lang’s portrayal of her suitor Count Gustav made for comic relief of the first order, Lang’s voice full of lustre and energy. Cheyne Davidson sang the conservative, highly punctilious Tschang with conviction, and Martin Zysset, as the nosy and aging Chief Eunuch, had what was undoubtedly the operetta’s finest comic line: “I’m descended from a long line of eunuchs”.

Piotr Beczała (Prince Sou-Chong), Spencer Lang (Graf Gustav von Pottenstein) and chorus © Toni Suter
Piotr Beczała (Prince Sou-Chong), Spencer Lang (Graf Gustav von Pottenstein) and chorus
© Toni Suter

Wolfgang Gussmann’s all-black stage saw a winding staircase wrapped on one or both sides around an enormous upright cylinder. In the Chinese scenes this sombre, non-evasive backdrop handsomely set off the choir, numerous extras, and a troupe of excellent dancers, all in hot red and pink kimonos and some with flowered headdresses. Given that the company all had to manage a precarious descent down the long and rail-less sets of stairs, I can’t begrudge the few who stepped offbeat or showed slightly wobbly fan-work. The only other “props” − two studded shiny leather armchairs − doubled as platforms in a variety of configurations, sometimes even as a base to a pyramid of bodies, where the mastery of different levels made for stunning visual vignettes.

Finally, Gussmann and Susana Mendoza’s extravagant costuming was scrumptious. In the Viennese gowns, the combinations of different black fabrics with soft sleeves, laces, peplums and trains contrasted to the pandemonium of colourful Chinese silks and headgears. My only objection was to the flat-forehead masks the court dancers wore in Act 2; they conveyed a “Ninja Turtles” effect that, while uniform and “of the “masses”, was hardly appealing. That remains a trifle, though, for overall, this was a supremely melodious, chock-full-of-contrasts production that had tremendous visual appeal. Both singing and staging were more than first-rate; they were a breath of fresh air.