Online opera guide and synopsis to Franz Lehar’s the land of smile
The music that Lehar presents to us in “das Land des Lächelns” (“the Land of Smiles”) is stunning. Lehar himself said of his music that he always sought the melody. And what splendor he offers us in this work! Each of the pieces unfolds an irresistible charm and has become a success story.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Salon scene)
♪ Act II (Palace scene)
♪ Act III (Farewell scene)
♪ Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (Yours is my heart alone)
25 years after the Merry Widow
Lehar spent his whole life searching for success. This success came for the first time with the Merry Widow at the age of 34. During his lifetime this work became one of the most performed works in the whole opera and operetta repertoire. During all his life he looked for artistic acknowledgment (As was Offenbach 60 years before…), which was not granted to him by many so called experts. With the Land of Smiles, a work he wrote in 1928 at the age of 58, Lehar tried to make the operetta more contemporary and to bring it closer to the opera genre. At the time of the composition of “Land of Smiles” Vienna is no longer the pleasure-seeking Danube metropolis of the fin-de-siècle, but the (oversized) capital of a small country, at the end of a shaken decade. Consequently, the “Land of Smiles” is no longer a frivolous Viennese operetta, but a work with the claim to illuminate the inner life of its characters. It ends tragically, because the lie of a happy ending no longer fitted into this time. A few weeks after the premiere, the Black Friday broke over the Western business world, which initiated the historic stock market collapse of 1929. Historically interesting is the parallel to another great operetta, Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”. He too wrote the work during a time of economic depression, which led to a major stock market crash shortly after the premiere.
A highlight of the operetta literature
Musically Lehar distances himself a right piece from the operetta. We find some passages that remind us of Strauss’ Salome. Nota bene, Richard Strauss would reject this statement, since he was one of those who contemptuously pointed his fingers at the operetta composer Lehàr.
The music Lehar presents to us is stunning. Lehar himself said of his music that he always sought the melody. And what splendor he offers us in this work! Each of the pieces unfolds an irresistible charm and has become a success story. Now and then there are pieces that would also cut a good figure in an opera. Lehar himself said: “Modern opera is too heavy even for the semi-educated, modern number opera is too light, too shallow for him. I want to fill the gap between the two, my operetta should be an intermediate between opera and operetta.”
The success of this work was instantaneous. With the land of smile, Lehar was able to repeat the enormous success of his merry widow. Something that was not granted to many of his contemporaries of his time (Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Cilea, Boito etc.), who waited a life long to confirm their success of younger years.
Richard Tauber and Giacomo Puccini
In this opera portrait we will of course also talk about Lehar’s collaboration with the tenor Richard Tauber. Tauber was not the only important source of inspiration, however; Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly also impressed Lehar. Although Puccini’s exoticism of the Butterfly was musically much more profound than Lehar’s somewhat superficial orientalism, the two works have many parallels, such as the failure of the fusion of different cultures, represented by a relationship drama which ultimately fails tragically. However, with reversed gender roles and “the land of smiles” has been jokingly called “Monsieur Butterfly”.
The libretto – the brown shadow over Franz Lehar
The story about prince Sou-Cheng and the bourgeois Lisa was not new. The plot is based on Lehar’s operetta “the yellow jacket” (libretto by Leon), which he had put on stage without success 6 years earlier. The work was too ample dimensioned and had textual weaknesses. Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner-Breda purged the libretto and the plot and wrote catchy texts. Musically Lehar took over much of the previous work and added a few more pieces.
The librettists were all of Jewish origin, whose fates ended tragically in the later Nazi years. Especially heartbreaking was the end of Fritz Löhner-Breda, whose works, which he wrote in the concentration camps Buchenwald and Auschwitz, were later published. The role that Lehar played in the Third Reich is saddening. But I will refrain from going into it at this point.
DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS ACT I
The operetta begins with a potpourri of beautiful melodies from the opera.
Ouvertüre – Sandor
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s interpretation of Lisa
Synopsis: In the drawing room of Count Lichtenfels. Lisa, the count’s daughter is celebrated. She has won a riding tournament.
The role of Lisa will probably always be associated with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. With the recording from the 50s, conducted by Ackermann and produced by her later husband Legge, she set standards.
Heut meine Herrn, war ein Tag … gerne wär ich verliebt
Synopsis: Lisa is a cheerful woman.
In the lively ¾ beat with Viennese charm Lisa sings about love.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Lisa captivates with her elegance and musicality. Her voice has noblesse and an erotic charisma.
Flirten, bisschen Flirten – Schwarzkopf
Her ex friend August (called Gustl) shows up
Synopsis: Gustl appears and declares his love to Lisa. Lisa does not return the feelings anymore. That her feelings belong to a Chinese ambassador, remains her secret. Gustl is disappointed but wants to remain a good friend.
Lisa is a woman with a past, in contrast to Butterfly she is a self-determined and self-confident woman.
We hear again Schwarzkopf in a duet with Erich Kunz. Both were representatives of the legendary Vienna Mozart Ensemble of the post-war years. Kunz was the cosy and comedic Viennese par excellence, with charm, humour and, if necessary, the typically Viennese derision (“Schmäh”).
Es ist nicht das erste Mal – Schwarzkopf / Kunz
Richard Tauber’s interpretation of the Sou-Cheng
Synopsis: After the guests have left the room, the prince appears. He is in a reflective mood. He has fallen in love with Lisa. But he knows that this liaison is actually impossible. This pain oppresses him, but people of his culture hide their sorrow behind a facade, it always wants people to smile.
With this work Lehar intended to bring the operetta closer to the opera. He wanted to move away from the woodcut-like figures of the operetta to more sophisiticated human beings. Thus much of his music draws the inner world of the figures. Exemplary for it stands this piece, which shows a thoughtful Sou-Chong.
The role of Sou-Chong will also be forever connected with a name, his name is Richard Tauber. We will read more about the artistic symbiosis of Richard Tauber and Franz Lehar further below. Tauber was an opera singer by nature, but saw that he could reach a new audience with his operetta engagements. This turning away from the “heavy” to the light muse and his proverbial business acumen (he made over 700 recordings) became the point of attack for many critics who accused him of betraying the art. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that Tauber was one of the great lyrical tenors of his century. In this piece you will hear Tauber’s excellent legato and the expressive middle register of his voice.
Immer nur lächeln und immer vergnügt – Tauber
The elegant duett „Bei einem Tee à deux“
Synopsis: Lisa invites the prince for a cup of tea. The two enjoy the time together and flirt gallantly with each other.
Nicolai Gedda and Elisabeth sing the duet wonderfully lyrically and elegantly.
Bei einem Tee à deux – Schwarzkopf / Gedda
Synopsis: When Gustl disturbs them, Lisa leaves the room. Gustl asks Prince Chou, how they court women in China.
Nicolai Gedda was one of the tenors who could sing even the highest notes. The high parts of this aria are sung with brilliance.
Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz – Gedda
We hear a second recording with Joseph Schmidt. He was a very famous tenor in the 20/30s. Because of his small stature he was not suitable for the stage and he became known as a radio tenor. He distinguished himself with a high voice and a melancholic timbre. This fits wonderfully to this piece.
Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz – Schmidt
Synopsis: The prince receives a letter forcing him to leave for China immediately. He assumes an important position in the government. When Lisa hears about it, she is depressed.
Ein Lied, es verfolgt mich Tag und Nacht – Schwarzkopf
Synopsis: The prince is also depressed. He has realized that he does not fit into the western world, but he has to leave behind someone he loves.
Es wird schon so sein – Gedda / Schwarzkopf
Sou-Chong and Lisa confess their love
Synopsis: The two recognize their mutual feelings and decide to go to China together.
This scene could just as easily have been taken from an opera. This is no longer the finale of a light-footed operetta. The duet ends with a duet in a beautiful unisono.
We hear this excerpt from a production of the Zurich Opera House.
Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz … ein Lied will ich von Seligkeiten singen – Beczala / Kleiter
DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS II
The clash of cultures hits Lisa
Synopsis: In the hall of the Prince’s palace in Beijing. The prince will be inaugurated in a ghostly ceremony.
Dschinthien wuomen wu
Synopsis: Lisa recognizes the rift between their cultures and is depressed. Sou-Chong tries to cheer her up and conjures up the love that has brought them together.
Fritz Wunderlich’s voice shines in this duet in the most beautiful light. It is fresh and passionate.
Wer hat die Liebe uns ins Herz gesenkt – Wunderlich / Fahberg
Sou Chong must marry 4 Manchu women
Synopsis: The head of the family, Chang, demands that the prince marry four Manchu women according to the laws of the country, Lisa would then be the fifth wife. The prince begins to realize the hopelessness of the situation. Meanwhile Gustl has arrived at the palace. He followed Lisa. There he meets Sou-Chong’s sister Mi.
Mi complains about discrimination against Chinese women:
Knitting, embroidery, washing, cooking
And then again in the childbed,
Yes, that would be your ideal
One can assume that the social reality in Vienna at that time was no different and Lehar held up the mirror to his audience.
The role of Mi is a typical Soubretten role, which require a sure height and a flexible voice.
Im Salon zur blauen Pagode – Rothenberger
Gustl falls in love with Mi
Synopsis: Gustl is immediately enchanted by her.
Lehar wrote a delightful duet for the meeting of the two, which became a catchy tune with the refrain “meine Liebe, deine Liebe” (“my love, your love”).
In the recording of Ackermann, Erich Kunz captivates as Gustl with his warmth and charm, even if his voice is a bit heavy for the role. The role of Gustl is written for a buffotenor, Erich Kunz was a baritone.
Als Gott die Menschen erschuf .. meine Liebe, deine Liebe
Lisa confesses her misfortune to Gustl
Synopsis: When he meets Lisa, she confesses that she is unhappy in a foreign country and that she is full of longing for her home Vienna.
When Lisa longs for Vienna, of course the Viennese waltz is quoted.
Alles vorbei … ich möchte wieder einmal die Heimat sehn – Hallstein
Tauber‘s „Dein ist mein ganzes Herz“ («Yours Is My Heart Alone»)
Synopsis: Once again the prince tries to comfort her and conjures up his love.
This song was already present in Lehars previous work “die gelbe Jacke”, but was hardly noticed. In the remake of the Land of Smiles this song became a golden number. Richard Tauber must surely be given a lot of credit for this. Tauber had already collaborated with Lehar in 4 operettas in the 1920s and the songs that Lehar tailored to Tauber were usually prominently placed in the second act and were given the nickname “Tauber Lieder”. The Tauber song “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” is the most well-known of them, and one of the most famous tenor pieces ever.
The artistic partnership between Tauber and Lehar was highly symbiotic. In 1920 Richard Tauber sang an operetta by Lehar for the first time and reaped immediate success. Lehar suffered from the decline of the operetta genre. With Tauber he could match the early successes of the Merry Widow. Richard Tauber was one of the great entertainment stars during his lifetime and this aria made him a legend. Singing in operettas, the broad middle class opened up to him and he became mainstream.
Lehar was clever enough to adapt the singing voice of Sou-Chong in close cooperation with Richard Tauber. Lehar could emphasize the strengths of Tauber’s voice (the beautiful middle register, the beautiful dark timbre) and bypass the weaknesses of the voice (especially the top notes).
Dein ist mein ganzes Herz – Tauber
Pavarotti, immensely lyrical and revelling in “Thine is all my heart”. For an additional effect, Pavarotti, Domingo, Villazon and Co. occasionally end the aria with a high ace (instead of a des).
Tu m’hai preso il cor – Pavarotti
DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS ACT III
Lisa breaks with Sou-Chong
Synopsis: Lisa cannot accept to be the fifth wife. The Prince is trying to explain to her that the marriage is merely a formality. When Tschang begins the wedding ceremony, Lisa declares that she wants to leave China. In a terrible dispute, Sou-Chong tells her that she is only a thing in China and that he rules over her. Disgusted, Lisa declares that everything is over. Song is deeply affected.
Sad sounds introduce the reprise of the catchy tune.
Dein war mein ganzes Herz – Gedda
The relationship of Mi and Gustl is not born under an auspicious star
Synopsis: Mi is in love with the European.
And again a duet of Lehar’s, whose charm one cannot escape.
Zig, zig, zig… Du bist so lieb, so schön – Kunz / Loose
Synopsis: But even the feelings of Mi and Gustl can’t bridge the gap between the cultures, and Mi has to admit to herself that her dream won’t come true.
Wie rasch verwelkte doch das kleine Blümchen Glück – Schwarzkopf
The Failed Escape
Synopsis: Mi helps Gustl and Lisa to escape from the palace, but they are caught by Sou-Chong. He realizes that he can’t hold Lisa. He lets the Europeans go. Together with his sister Mi they sadly watch as Lisa and Gustl leave the palace.
In this nostalgic piece we hear the Swede Nicolai Gedda. Gedda’s mother tongues were Swedish and Russian, but his German is idiomatic and accent-free, his voice captivates with its beautiful melodiousness and great phrasing. We hear a beautiful ending to this wonderful work.
Liebes Schwesterlein, sollst nicht traurig sein – Gedda
Recording recommendation of the operetta DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS
EMI with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, Erich Kunz and Emmy Loose under the direction of Otto Ackermann and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on DAS LAND DES LÄCHELNS by Franz Lehar.