Keenan Viau as Chi Fu, centre, with the Ladies of the Chinese Court in The Land of Smiles. Photo: Gary Beechey
Reviewed by James Karas
“You are my heart's delight, /And where you are, I long to be” Prince Sou-Chong sings to Countess Lisa in the most famous aria from Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles but if you expect the two lovers to live together happily ever after, you would be wrong. Lehar gave his 1929 romantic operetta a bittersweet ending. Be that as it may, you should long to be where the Toronto Operetta Theatre has produced this gem at the Jane Mallett Theatre.
TOT’s General Director, Guillermo Silva-Marin, delivers a lively production albeit within the limitations of his resources. He has a tiny orchestra awkwardly lined up in front of the stage, very few props to make a set and a limited budget for just about everything. That does not seem to deter him or the company and they forge ahead producing operetta in Toronto for almost thirty years.
The principal singers of The Land of Smiles are Prince Sou-Chong (Ernesto Ramirez), the Chinese Ambassador to Vienna and Countess Lisa (Lara Ciekiewicz), the pretty daughter of a general. The two are deeply in love and Captain Gustl (Adam Fisher) who is also in love with Lisa is sent to the pasture of unrequited love.
Tenor Ramirez is Mexican and somewhat short of a romantic hero. His singing was good but his transitions were not always perfectly smooth. He appeared awkward but that is how the Chinese aristocrat may have felt in Vienna.
Soprano Ciekiewicz has a luminous voice and the good looks and aristocratic bearing to play the young Lisa. The singer is no doubt older than the character but that is almost inevitable.
Adam Fisher looks the part of the military officer that you expect to find in a Viennese operetta and sings quite well.
Vania Chan was very good as Princess Mi, Sou-Chong’s sister. She is the only Oriental in the cast and she sang and acted very well.
Domenico Sanfilippo as Colonel Bloch and Keenan Viau as the “testicularly challenged” Majordomo provided a good part of the comedy of the operetta.
The Vocal Ensemble was exceptionally good as was the Orchestra under the baton of Derek Bate.
The Land of Smiles takes place in a palace in Vienna and in a palace in Peking in the imperial heyday of both cities. Adequate or remotely realistic sets in the small Jane Mallett Theatre would be unthinkable and Silva-Marin does his usual: a lot with very little. A few flower arrangements, a couple of chairs and a curtain and you have the feel of an aristocratic venue. For the Peking scene he has a large gold throne and a few other touches to take us to China.
The costumes from Malabar for the Vienna scenes and from Tang Silk Whispers for the ladies’ Chinese costumes are suitable.
Silva-Marin adds a few lines of his own to the libretto and generates energy and captures some of the bitter sweetness of the plot. Lehar and his librettists Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Beda-Lohner went beyond the usual operetta plot and brought in some commentary about cultural differences and intolerance.
The Vienna and Peking of this operetta and any other operetta never existed but it’s nice to imagine that they did even for one evening through the lens provided by Lehar and transmitted to us by Toronto Operetta Theatre.