Although it is classed as an operetta, Franz Lehár's Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) needs opera singers to do justice to its rich operatic score. The 1929 composition was a revision of the earlier Die gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket), written in 1923, and it was a result of Lehár's strong association with tenor Richard Tauber.
Possibly the most famous song in The Land of Smiles, 'Dein ist mein ganzes Herz' (My heart is yours) was an addition to the original version and Lehár composed it for Richard Tauber. This song, as others in subsequent Lehár operettas, was intended as a Tauber-Song. Indeed, Lehár sent the song to Tauber with the following dedication: 'My dear Richard! Here is your Tauber-Song!!'
Perhaps because of its bittersweet ending, The Land of Smiles has been less popular than, for instance, Lehár's The Merry Widow. While, during the past 45 years, I have seen several productions of The Merry Widow in London, I have not come across any of The Land of Smiles. I was, therefore, greatly looking forward to seeing it in Miskolc and I was not disappointed.
Miskolc lies about 83 miles north-west from Budapest. It has Hungary's first stone-built theatre, which opened in 1823 and now houses the National Theatre of Miskolc. They have five stages – two of which are identical to allow double rehearsal periods as well as to operate as winter and summer venues respectively – and, therefore, most days they provide two or three performances simultaneously. Although the theatre employs a permanent orchestra with a permanent music director as well as actors and dancers, their opera/operetta performances largely rely on guest singers. Putting on coherent ensemble work must be an administrative nightmare, but – judging by their performance of The Land of Smiles – they triumph.
The placing of the performers on stage seemed unfortunate from time to time. For instance, while singing a fanfare-like greeting for Lisa's first appearance, the chorus turns away from the audience and thus diminishes the aural impact. One of the protagonists, Prince Sou-Chong, sings his first aria, 'Immer nur lächeln' (Always to smile), just standing and looking at the audience. In Act Two he sits behind all those dancers who put on a lavish entertainment for him, thus endangering the illusion that the dancers dance for him (and not for the audience). Presumably practical reasons, such as less exposure before the next big aria, dictate this placing but sitting on the side (rather than at the back of the stage) might have been a more acceptable compromise. Nevertheless, stage director Imre Halasi (also the director of the National Theatre of Miskolc) finds the right balance between portraying incompatibility, as per the libretto's plot, between Chinese and Central European traditions and providing tasteful but uplifting entertainment.
Zsolt Vadász (Prince Sou-Chong) coped well with his extremely difficult tenor part. It is hard to tell, whether he was under-acting the dramatic part of the role or whether he was portraying a character who was not allowed to show his feelings owing to the restraints of his Chinese tradition and royal status. The somewhat harsh voice of Erika Eperjesi (Lisa) took a bit of getting used to, but she won me over with her technical vocal assurance, musicality and convincing acting. Sándor Hagymási (Count Gustav von Pottenstein, although in this production Count Ferenc Hatfaludy) is equally at ease with singing, dancing and dialogue. For my liking, Trixi Teremi over-played the flirtatious nature of Mi, and her diction was less than clear. But her sense of fun is evident and her rendering of 'Wie rasch verwelkte doch das kleine Blümchen Glück' (How fast the little flower's happiness fades) was deeply moving. Although slightly tired in voice, the majestic appearance of Károly Kincses (Tschang) was welcome.
Conductor (and NTM music director) Katalin Váradi drew focused playing from her orchestra. Váradi treats the score as an opera and pays attention to overall structure as well as to details. Her tempi were well chosen, allowing fluidity but also incorporating the sharpness of the dance rhythms. The lyrical beauty of the evening – including arias and duets by Sou-Chong, Lisa and Mi – was clearly defined and inspired.
As in the United Kingdom, quality performance is not restricted to the capital. A visit to Miskolc is definitely worthwhile!
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Bocsi Krisztian