Lehar: Das Land des Lächelns

LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Das Land des Lächelns
PERFORMER: Nancy Gustafson, Jerry Hadley, Naomi Itami, Lynton Atkinson; English CO/Richard Bonynge
Here is virtually every kind of operetta, from the ubiquitous Die Fledermaus of Johann Strauss, through some little-known (in Britain) French examples of the genre, to an 18th-century master of Spanish zarzuela.


The Mörbisch Lake Festival of operetta takes place every summer on an open-air stage by the beautiful Neusiedlersee, a short drive from Vienna. Its Fledermaus is performed by a predominantly young cast who all sound authentically Viennese, and conducted stylishly by Rudolf Bibl. (The veteran Viennese tenor Waldemar Kmentt sings the role of Frank, the prison governor.)

Two discs of popular Franz Lehár operettas (performed without dialogue) are conducted with great verve and obvious affection by Richard Bonynge, with the principal roles undertaken by Americans Nancy Gustafson and Jerry Hadley. The leading male roles in The Land of Smiles and The Czarevitch were written for Lehár’s favourite tenor, Richard Tauber. Undaunted, Jerry Hadley (who is also responsible for the excellent new translation of The Land of Smiles) tackles both roles with vigour, an attractive voice and clear diction. Nancy Gustafson is impressive, especially as Sonia in The Czarevitch, while Naomi Itami and Lynton Atkinson make an engaging pair of secondary, comic lovers in both works.

A younger German contemporary of Lehár, Eduard Künneke wrote more than twenty operettas, many of which were highly successful in Berlin, New York and London in the Twenties and early Thirties. (A recording of Der Vetter aus Dingsda, his most tuneful work, would be welcome.) During the Nazi years, Künneke remained in Berlin where Die lockende Flamme, a Romantic Singspiel based on the life of ETA Hoffmann, had its premiere in 1933. An uneven piece, it contains a few attractive numbers, but is performed rather charmlessly by Cologne forces conducted efficiently by Peter Falk.

EMI’s Belle Époque series offers some fascinating French material. The disc shared by three 19th-century composers, Massé, Planquette and Varney, is most to be treasured for the extracts from Planquette’s Rip, a curious piece in a mixture of styles, which was commissioned by the Comedy Theatre of London and premiered there in 1882 when it achieved a run of 400 performances. Michel Dens is Rip Van Winkle. He and his colleagues, stalwarts of the Paris Opéra-Comique in the Fifties, are delightful in all three works.

Three composers who flourished in Paris in the Fifties, but are hardly known at all in this country, are featured on another Belle Époque disc. Jean-Michel Damase (whom I remember as Gérard Souzay’s pianist forty or more years ago) is represented by his prodigiously tuneful Eugène le mystérieux, sung by the cast of its 1964 premiere. Wladimir Wal-Berg’s Casanova (1954) is less interesting, but Chanson gitane by Maurice Yvain, who in his younger days wrote songs for Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, is a spectacular gypsy extravaganza which has had several productions since its 1946 premiere. Gloriously authentic-sounding performances from all concerned.

Manuel Rosenthal is best known as the arranger of Offenbach’s music for the ballet Gaité parisienne. His La poule noire, a one-act musical joke conceived for the famous Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia (who died before it could be staged), was a huge success in Paris in 1937. It is performed here by Denise Duval and Jean Giraudeau, the stars of its Opéra-Comique revival in 1956. Georges Van Parys and Philippe Parès collaborated on Le moulin sans souci, a charming piece about a young woman who passes herself off as a boy to circumvent an inheritance law, but then finds herself drafted into the army where she becomes romantically involved with a handsome lieutenant. Janine Micheau is a delightful Johann(a), and Michel Dens is fine as the confused object of her affections. Joseph Kosma, who composed the score for Carne’s film Les enfants du paradis, is represented on this disc by the light-hearted Les chansons de Bilitis.

In ‘Airs et duos d’opérettes’, Liliane Berton and Michel Dens begin with the familiar (thanks to Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth) Donkey Duet from Messager’s Véronique, and work their way through solos and duets by several French composers before embarking – still in French – upon some of the most popular numbers from Viennese operetta. Highly diverting: this is what ‘easy listening’ ought to mean.

José de Nebra (1702-68) composed 57 zarzuelas and operas, all of which were staged in Madrid and/or Lisbon. The zarzuela Viento es la dicha de amor (‘Wind is the Happiness of Love’ is the accurate but not entirely happy literal translation) tells the story of Liriope, a nymph dedicated to the cult of love, who is courted by Zephyrus, son of the wind. The music is closer in style to Baroque opera than to what one normally thinks of as zarzuela. None the worse for that; indeed, to me, easier on the ear. The Spanish singers deal with it expertly.


By far the most unusual of all these offerings is the earliest operetta composed by the Viennese Oscar Straus: Die lustigen Nibelungen, a satire on Wagner, the Nibelung saga and German militarism. Imagine Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen holding forth in the style of Straus’s most popular stage work, The Chocolate Soldier, and you’ll have a reasonable idea of what it sounds like. After its initial success, Straus’s burlesque operetta fell foul of German nationalism, and before long no theatre manager in any German-speaking country dared to stage it. This Cologne performance is highly acceptable. The accompanying booklet contains a synopsis of the plot, but a bilingual libretto would have been more useful.