What endures of Zurich Opera’s performance of Lehár’s “Das Land des Lachelns” is Piotr Beczala.
Never did we fail to hear the clear, clean line of his clarion sound; never did we fail to feel his full and steady presence on stage. While outside, swans and an array of boats dotted Lake Zurich and strollers savored assorted ice creams, inside, the white Baroque opera house was a beauty more than bittersweet. When Beczala took the stage, we knew we were there for music of the first order, not simply an afternoon of operetta charm.
The Star of the Night
As Prince Sou-Chong, Beczala played a convincing lover, singing with ardor and finesse, especially once some opening reticence retreated. While he admitted he could have his sweetheart beheaded if he wanted, such cruelty remained latent in his character. In the operetta’s most famous aria, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” he sang with direct and honest feeling. No hiding, no false over-romanticism, but a straightforward confession of love. Beczala built up his offering on its own merits; he didn’t force or cajole, he was plaintive without pleading, but also occasionally melting. His legato was smooth and mellifluous, the volume never obviously manipulated; he knew the dials and he aptly played them. Even the reprise of part of the aria was welcome. It wouldn’t have disturbed anyone if he’d sung it two or three times more, “a la” the days when tenors let the audience, their claques, or their own egos determine repetition, dramatically logical or not.
Maestro Fabio Luisi energetically led the Philharmonia Zurich from the opening notes of the overture. The “au courant” style of parsing the libretto to come by staging a quasi-dumb prelude of the upcoming action was unnecessary. Almost a cliche these days, and in this production adding no aesthetic relevance to the work, it distracted from the musical texture for which Luisi aimed. Let the music do the work; let the vivid musical interest of trombone and harp, oboe and French horn do their jobs.
Stage Presence, But Something Amiss
That said, with the first appearance of soprano Julia Kleiter as Lisa, the orchestra threatened to overwhelm her extensive high-low range. Her wide-ranging acting abilities stopped that from happening. Complete with high hat and hunting attire, amid a gaggle of beaux, she captured attention more with her physical dexterity than with the projection of voice. Her presence brought out the playful side of Beczala’s prince and her flirtatiousness, as well as tender gazing and caressing of him, succeeded in showing us a convincing duo both in music and in love. Their duets were endearing. However, Kleiter’s successful stage presence didn’t disguise some of her uneven vocal presentation, sometimes overblown crescendo, sometimes some shrillness. In addition to this vocal unpredictability, she limited her acting to the two poles – yes I will; no I won’t. Was she just a flirt? Was she playing at being a 1920s flapper/feminist? Yes, her homesickness made us sympathetic, but surely she was silly to reject a nice prince like that.
Lisa’s sometime beau, Gustl, played skillfully by Spencer Long, and Prince Sou-Chong’s sister, Mi, well-played by Rebeca Olvera, provided apt counterpoint to the drama between Lisa and the prince with wit and more than occasional mugging. This kept the operetta in its own light element. The jokes about the eunuch and the antics of Mi and her dancing friends provided comic relief.
Not Quite Right
This is not “Der Rosenkavalier” nor is it “The King and I,” where cultural contrasts are more thoughtfully explored. Andreas Homoki, Arturo Gama, and Wolfgang Gussmann’s production kept the lighter side of cultural contrast in the forefront, especially with their quasi-Hollywood and Ziegfield Follies approach. Fans, tennis rackets, cute tennis outfits, and colors galore (costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann and Susanna Mendoza) emphasized this zeitgeist. The twin spiral staircases on either side of the classical pole separating them, provided opportunity for lots of coming and going. Lack of synchronization in dancing and costume shifting was probably inevitable in the quick changes the choruses had to make, but didn’t compare well to comparable Broadway versions. It added, in fact, to the lack of seamlessness in the production as a whole, try as it did to weld the comic and the serious throughout. A good idea, but… not quite. The same went for the Chinese relatives and rulers, played by Cheyne Davidson and Martin Zysset, who were neither fish nor fowl.
And then the curtain pulling – the gorgeous navy bespeckled curtain, geometrically outlined with smart gilded lines played scene divider throughout – opening, closing, opening, closing. The first two or three times it worked. But third, fourth, fifth time? Without aesthetic relevance? They could have used a Super to run across the stage with a sign announcing – “We’re in a forest, or at a lake, or in another room in the palace – and achieved at least a whimsical effect. So too, the leather chairs, shunted this way and that, in front of the curtain, behind the curtain, between the curtain. And what of the chorus mounting the staircases adjacent to the central column? Yes, they were deft enough to climb up and down – hats off to them – but as to careful production values? Too much, too often. And then the tossing down of Beczala’s gorgeous yellow kimono (by the way the original libretto was based on the book, Gelben Jacke by Victor Leon) then having him don it again – three times, plus mask – seemed like an exaggeration; one time would have given us a significant moment. Perhaps there was a “deus ex machina” at work in the score or was it the twitching hand of the director?
Did these distractions spoil the poignancy of the Prince’s final message, “Smile though your heart is breaking”? Perhaps. Lehár’s hybrid version of Confucian and Buddhist philosophies holds. But remember, this is a staged Peking. This is an operetta composed on the eve of the great stock market crash of 1929. Beyond the opera house walls, sweet sunshine abounded. Plus, we heard Beczala and his winning voice. Smile he did, and we too, for a job well done. Sorrow? Yes, but not in this tuneful display. We heard what we heard and that’s what left its imprint.