Every work is really several possibilities, depending on the emphases in the interpretation. There are several operas inside each opera, several musicals inside each musical. And this is particularly so when we speak of operetta, a form that can seem like a special class of opera, or simply a popular musical, depending on which direction favoured by the interpreter. Yes, musicals are operettas. Die Fledermaus, Chicago, Land of Smiles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may seem like a broad range until we recall that opera includes Actéon and Zauberflöte, Aida and Zaide…and so much more besides.
When I see a musical at Stratford or Shaw (Niagara-on-the-Lake) they don’t usually let anyone onstage whose speech isn’t pristine. For them—those sacred institutions of acting & speech—their priorities are clear. Whatever music goes on, the dialogue takes precedence, the story-telling and dramatic values over-ride musical concerns. Sometimes that bothers me because I may not like the musical effect; but I understand their philosophy and with their brand I know what I’m getting.
Toronto Operetta Theatre is a different brand. The pre-show talk for Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, currently playing at the St Lawrence Centre, rightly alludes to the inter-cultural issues in the work, but would situate the work in a line with such serious operas as Madama Butterfly and Turandot, rather than more recent musicals such as South Pacific or Flower Drum Song. Lehar’s work can be understood for its broad comedy or its fabulous music. TOT didn’t miss the opportunity to showcase singing talent, as i believe that’s the TOT brand in a nutshell: emphasizing the great vocals above all.
It’s a truism about musicals that the music begins when the words can’t go any further, saying what cannot be expressed through words alone. This is certainly true of this Lehar score. We’re listening to schmaltzy waltzy melodies in Act I, an idiom that may have been popular at one time, but nowadays feels at least as distant as the Roaring Twenties. And then we’re whisked to another far-off musical realm, this time an evocation of China in pentatonic harmonies plus a bit of chromaticism to give us more schmaltz. While at one time the mid-European waltzes may have been understood as heimat or homeland, both places now feel equally remote & artificial.
Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin gives his story-telling to wonderful singers, and so, while their dialogue may at times resemble the lead-up to an aria, they do give us an endless series of brilliant solos or duets. Tenor Ernesto Ramirez has a wonderfully fluid line and brilliant high notes, while soprano Lara Ciekiewicz matched him high note for high note. They made a sympathetic couple both visually and in the way their voices blended, and ably supported by the TOT orchestra led by Derek Bate.
Land of Smiles is mostly a light & sunny work, romantic & schmaltzy, and also funny with only occasional glimpses of darkness, depending on the emphasis of the director. For the most part Silva-Marin connected Lehar to the operatic pathway of high art rather than surrendering to low comedy, even though from time to time the text leads us into deliciously zany territory.
I was especially impressed by Keenan Viau’s fearless portrayal of the court eunuch, repeatedly playing up double entendres, in stark contrast to Curtis Sullivan’s furiously deadpan uncle. I found Act II – where the comedy hit its stride—much more enjoyable than Act I, which was gorgeously sung but uneventful. Land of Smiles is a charming tale of exotic romance, at times in danger of being hijacked by its own comedy, but Silva-Marin never allowed the anarchic wackyness to overwhelm the romance. At its heart this is a cute and touching story, one that wears its heart on its sleeve in three-four time.
Land of Smiles continues at the St Lawrence Centre for seven more performances this weekend and next, concluding January 5th.