|Benjamin Dickerson, Dominick Corbacio, Maria Brea, and Kendrick Pifer
Franz Lehár's Das Land des Lächelns is translated as "The Land of Smiles". Our pleasure in the performance we saw at Manhattan School of Music was so intense that one might think the term referred to the effect of the piece on the audience.
Although Lehár's fame was established by his 1905 Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), we consider this 1929 operetta to be a superior work with greater depth and lovelier music. Whoever has not thrilled to "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" has probably never heard it. Hearing it sung last night by tenor Dominick Corbacio in the role of Prince Sou Chong was pure heaven. The song made Richard Tauber famous and we hope it will do the same for Mr. Corbacio. Accomplished way beyond his senior student status, he has a pleasing tone and floats his high notes without pushing.
The plot of this work likely satisfied the needs of the Viennese public to be exposed to the exoticism of Asia and the equivalent need to see Vienna as the best place on earth. It concerns Lisa (the lovely soprano Maria Brea), daughter of General Lichtenfels (effective bass Gabriel Rollinson), who graciously turns down the marital offer of Count Gustav von Pottenstein (superb baritone Benjamin Dickerson) to run off with Prince Sou Chong to wed him in his own kingdom. Although the work was set in 1912 China, by the costuming we believe we were meant to be in Bhutan.
The Prince's Uncle Tschang (baritone Seok Jong Baek, excellent in a thankless role) does not recognize the marriage and insists that the Prince marry "the chosen one". This does not sit well with Lisa and when the Prince turns unpleasantly authoritarian, she realizes she cannot live under such restrictions and must be rescued by Count Gustav. This requires the lovely Maria Brea to go through a spectrum of emotions which she achieved, while retaining the clarity of tone and fine phrasing that made her a winning heroine.
A subplot involves the Count falling for the Prince's sister Mi, sung by the delightfully charming Kendrick Pifer who brought the role alive with her winning personality and admirable coloratura. Their duet "Zig, zig, zig" was enchanting. When the Count left she switched moods and became wistful in "Wie rasch verwelkte doch!"
The bittersweet ending has everyone accepting their fates and relying on smiles to cover up the sorrow. Lisa is happy to return to her wonderful Viennese home.
It was hard to believe that the cast comprised undergraduates. Although it is called Senior Opera Theater, some cast members were in their third year, But they could have fooled us easily! Tenor Joseph Klebanoff made a fine showing as Cousin Rudi who sang "Seufzergässchen" as welcome comic relief.
Baritone Jonathan Thierer portrayed Colonel Bloch, who annoyed everyone except for the irritable Countess Frida (mezzo-soprano Erika Rush Robinson) whose lovely duet with him "Wer hat die Liebe" melted her icy demeanor.
Tenor Giovanni Pinto portrayed Fu-Li, the Prince's major-domo; the more officious and pretentious he got, the funnier. The chorus of women were excellent at Lisa's birthday party. Lehár's wonderful waltz tunes permitted some charming choreography by Francis Patrelle.
All of these delights were pulled together by Dona D. Vaughn who directed with a sure hand, which we have come to expect. The work was treated with honesty, respect, and sincerity. No attempt was made to update the dialogue or the appositely stilted delivery. It came across just as it should. We always prefer retention of the original style.
It was an excellent decision for the dialogue to be spoken in English; the songs were sung in German that was so accurate that we didn't need to read the titles. Kudos to Diction Coach Marianne Barrett.
Maestro Jorge Parodi led the orchestra with his customary relaxed rigor, bringing out every gorgeous tune that Lehár composed. The music flowed forth like honey on a warm day.
Sets were simple. For the General's home, a table and a pair of chairs, some topiary and some chandeliers were enough to suggest bourgeois comfort. For the Prince's palace, a huge gong and some potted palms sufficed. Nothing more was needed.
Costumes by Summer Lee Jack were colorful but often ill-fitting and appeared thrown together. They suggested some indeterminate Asian country.
We would wish to have more operettas produced here in New York. They were a valuable bridge between European opera and the American Musical Theater. They are invariable tuneful and always worth a rehearing; this is more than we can say for contemporary opera which we endure and never wish to hear again!
(c) meche kroop