Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns must have seemed old fashioned even when it opened in 1929 in a Berlin that had already seen Wozzeck and Die Dreigroschenoper. With its waltzes and gentle chinoiserie it looks back rather than forward musically and makes few demands on its listeners. Similarly, the plot; a bittersweet romance between an Austrian aristocrat and a Chinese prince had nothing in it to disturb contemporaries though modern audiences might find the cultural appropriation a bit hard to take. However, if Turandot doesn’t bother you this likely won’t either.
So, what we get is a work that can be used as a backdrop for glamorous visuals and vocal display which, in my limited experience is what Toronto Operetta Theatre is mostly about. On those terms the production which opened last night at the Jane Mallett Theatre, gently updated (the eunuch isn’t a eunuch he’s “testicularly challenged”) and given in English as Land of Smiles works pretty well. Both the uniforms and gowns of the first act, set in fin de siècle Vienna, and, even more, the court of the Chinese prince Sou-Chong in Act 2 allow the costume designer to go to town and facilitate director Guillermo Silva-Marin creating colourful and spectacular tableaux vivants.
The music is designed to show case the vocal talents of the tenor playing Sou-Chong and the soprano singing the Austrian countess Lisa, his bride. Lara Ciekiewicz, as the latter, was on excellent form with control and power throughout her range and was musically the star of the evening. Ernesto Ramirez as the prince, a role created for Richard Tauber , was also pretty decent, especially in his lower and middle registers, though one might have hoped for a bit more tenor oomph on the money notes in his big numbers. There were good supporting performances from Adam Fisher as Captain Gusti von Plotz and Vania Chan as Princess Mi and a couple of well acted non singing roles from Keenan Viau as the rather camp eunuch Chi-fu and Curtis Sullivan as a menacing Prince Tschang (does nobody cast Sullivan in singing roles anymore?). Derek Bate conducted a thirteen piece band to good effect.
If operetta, traditionally understood and interpreted, is your thing you will likely find much to like in this show but don’t go expecting musical or dramatic surprises.. There are seven more performances between now and January 5th including a New Year’s Eve gala and dinner dance event.