Burlesque gives way to brutality

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Hitler, Stalin and Idi Amin spar with George W. Bush, Napoleon and Ivan the Terrible. Nero and a caveman join in. First clubs, then swords, then a jousting tournament, next cannons, tanks, land mines and the atom bomb. All are thrilled with the effects.

This is Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta The Land of Smiles. Not as specified by the libretto, of course. Despots of history were not the main focus of Viennese entertainment between the wars. But the shadow of conflicts past and future could certainly be felt between the lines, and it’s hardly surprising that Peter Konwitschny puts it centre-stage for part of his new production at Berlin’s Komische Oper.

It was Konwitschny who hit headlines for his Csárdásfürstin in Dresden seven years ago, where dismembered soldiers danced with their missing limbs. It has become increasingly obligatory for German stage directors to bring out the tragedy in tragicomic works by spotlighting the horrors that viewers of the time came to the theatre to forget. Konwitschny is the father of them all, Ur-iconoclast and elder statesman of intellectual shock value. This Berlin Land of Smiles finds him back on high form after a string of lesser efforts.

The tyrants’ ballet is just a light interlude in an evening that peels back all the layers of Lehár’s lightweight sally into an imaginary China to reveal the agony of human incompatibility beneath. “Männer und Frauen passen einfach nicht zusammen” (“Men and women simply don’t fit together”), the Germans are fond of saying when a relationship goes awry, and the expression masks a fundamental pessimism just as surely as Prince Sou-Chong’s eponymous smile masks a complex emotional life.

Along with this comes a widespread view that Viennese operetta has no artistic validity in the serious opera world unless something modern is made of it. That is Konwitschny’s speciality, and he succeeds most entertainingly with this meticulously silly staging.

Since the China of Lehár’s operetta was nothing but a mish-mash of clichés and an exotic excuse for a failed love story, Konwitschny dispenses from the start with all pretence at seeking a real China. Instead, we see the unmistakably Teutonic Stephan Rügamer come on to the stage with his make-up artist, who paints on slanted eyes and adds a top-knot wig as he sings his first aria. All this takes place in an overtly phony Vienna State Opera, complete with canvas dress circles and little models of famous Viennese landmarks (sets: Jörg Kossdorff). Konwitschny snips and interpolates to make sure we miss neither the absurdity of Lehár’s cultural prejudices nor the vulnerability of his characters’ feelings. Viennese society is just as adept at repressing real emotions as feudal or Maoist China, and women tend to draw the short straw everywhere.

The burlesque mood of Konwitschny’s Act I irreverence falls away after the interval, as the flaws in the young people’s relationships emerge and Sou-Chong reveals a dormant tendency to brutality. It would all seem a lot more tedious without Kirill Petrenko’s brisk yet imaginative conducting, and singing that is consistently excellent.

Tatjana Gazdik’s impish, glittering Lisa is mirrored well by Karen Rettinghaus’s charmingly sincere Mi. Tom Erik Lie makes a boyish, likeable Gustl, but the evening’s most heartbreaking artistry comes from Stephan Rügamer’s charismatic and multifaceted Sou-Chong.

Despite the inevitable moments of heavy-handed didacticism, there is plenty to enjoy in this detailed, well-made production.
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