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Lakmé at Opera Holland Park [Image by Opera Holland Park]
14 Jul 2015

Léo Delibes: Lakmé

Camille Saint-Saëns once remarked, snidely, that: ‘French criticism has not reproached Delibes with not being a melodist; he has made some operettas.’

Léo Delibes: Lakmé

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lakmé at Opera Holland Park [Image by Opera Holland Park]


Certainly it is the melody of Lakmé’s Act 1 ‘Flower Duet’ which is the opera’s best-known number today — though this owes largely to its use as an advertising jingle for a certain airline. And, it was the gloriousness of the composer’s seamless melodic invention which was the highlight of this superbly sung new production of Lakmé at Opera Holland Park.

Delibes’s Lakmé is one in a long line of operas which pandered to contemporary French taste for, and fascination with, the Orient. Characteristically, too, the opera shows little concern for musical authenticity, imitating the stylised orientalism of predecessors such as Massenet’s La Roi de Lahore, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (for which Delibes had served as chorus master in 1863), Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, and Félicien David’sLalla-Roukh , to name but a few. The première in April 1883 was a resounding success but the penchant for a naive exoticism informed by un-PC attitudes and values has waned, and contemporary stagings, certainly here in the UK, have been rare. OHP demonstrate an exceptional commitment in returning to the opera which they last staged in 2007.

Set during the British Raj, Lakmé is a colonial tale of star-crossed lovers. When Lakmé, the daughter of Brahmin priest Nilakantha (whose dangerous mix of fatherly love and religious fanaticism will propel the ensuing tragedy) falls in love with the English officer Gérald, she incites her father’s hunger for revenge against the occupying British. Gérald, returning her passion, neglects both his public and private obligations — as his friend Frédéric reminds him, his duties are to his nation and to his fiancée, Miss Ellen. Incensed by the sacrilegious intrusion of a foreigner into his sacred ground, Nilakantha swears vengeance: he asks Lakmé to sing, to attract the interloper, and stabs Gérald when the latter cannot hide his enchantment. As Lakmé fetches the water from the sacred spring that will restore Gérald and protect their love for perpetuity, Frédéric appears and recalls Gérald to his regimental duties — suppressing Indian insurgency — an appeal to which Gérald submits. When she returns, sensing that her lover will not prove true, Lakmé swallows the poisonous datura leaf. Too late, Gérald realises his terrible and tragic mistake: dying of love, he swallows the sacred water and vows his eternal devotion.

The opera is inherently rather static. As Saint-Saëns’s barbed comment suggests, Delibes’s musical language was dominated by his gift for melody; in contrast, his harmonies can be somewhat monotonous, the ‘exotic inflections’ clichéd, and the formal construction of the whole clunky and discontinuous.

Swiss-Turkish director Aylin Bozok and her designer, Morgan Large, do not overcome this dramatic inertness; indeed, they choose to emphasise the stillness and reverential calm, but while they exploit the expressive beauty of individual moments, they do not find a way to create convincing links between them. The set, though fairly minimal, is pretty to look at: placed centre-stage amid swirling ultramarine floor-drapes (they represent the sacred spring, although the cast occasionally fail to recall their symbolism and blithely wade through the ‘holy water’), the secret Hindu temple is an interlaced lotus-fretwork whose curved panels slide to reveal a gilded altar — a sort of grandiose aviary — in which Lakmé (and the dancer who signifies the priestess’s inner desires) appears, sacred and venerated. Howard Hudson’s cool-blue lighting design is occasionally tempered by rose-pink or honeyed-yellow beams which coat the consecrated shrine; but, in the first two Acts the prevailing scheme does little to distinguish between moonlight and dawn, between an eerie twilight or the vibrant heat of the mid-morning market scene which opens Act 2 — although, sudden splashes of glistening greens and rich purple do enliven Act 3.

Delibes is best known by modern audiences for his ballets, Coppélia (1870) and Sylvie (1876); the inclusion of several ballets within the score is not surprising, as such ballets played to his musical strengths and satisfied the penchants of contemporary Parisians. But, Bozok’s movement direction is as minimalist as the décor. The priest’s slaves, Mallika and Hadji — graced with a formal elegance — are a powerful visual presence. But, this approach works less well with the Chorus who, cloaked throughout in shapeless, insipidly coloured, hooded robes, are largely stagnant, arranged in formalised arrangements, their movements stylised. This is a pity as the Chorus sing with vigour and richness; but while Bozok captures the ritual dignity of the mystical scenes she neglects the saffron-hued warmth and vitality of the Orient.

Instead, there is a single dancer, Lucy Starkey, who serves as an embodiment of Lakmé’s emotional turbulence. Though there are some characteristically ‘oriental’ poses, Starkey’s extrovert, muscular movements are out of kilter with both the sinuous allure of the east and with the prevailing rituality and serenity of this production. While the solo dances were forcefully characterised and superbly executed, I found them disjunctive in dramatic and expressive terms — especially during Lakmé’s notoriously difficult ‘Bell aria’, where the jerky, leaping excesses were distracting.

Part of the problem is that Delibes’s opera is constructed to a formula whose fashionable influence has since waned. To be fair, the venue itself does not help. Hudson’s blue colorations lack impact in the summer sunshine which lingers throughout Acts 1 and 2, seeping through the side-openings of the marquee. And, it’s hard to establish a reverential stillness when the peacocks are shrieking, and the airplanes and helicopters are roaring overheard (creating a din which, at one point, made Lakmé’s distress at the ‘strange murmurings’ in her heart a wry understatement). Add the invasive pigeons and the even more disruptive interruptions of late-comers (not to mention a bellicose altercation over a mobile phone which marred the opening moments) and one could sympathise with the directorial difficulties.

Fortunately, strong singing more than compensated for the above misgivings. It was evident why Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn won the title role, as soon as she commenced the sonorous vocalise of the ‘Légende’ which precedes the pyrotechnical ‘Bell aria’ in Act 2. The demands made by the latter are indeed legendary, and Wyn’s precision and animation were noteworthy (she was admirably accompanied by accurate harp and glockenspiel). She swept thrillingly up to her high E, and had the stamina and strength to see the vocal fireworks through to their close.

But, Wyn’s performance was a little uneven: the tone at the start of Act 1 was rather thin, and she occasionally lacked the sensuousness of line that she found later, in her Act 2 and 3 duets with Robert Murray’s Gérald. There were some tuning problems too, especially at the start of Act 1. It should not matter that, blonde-haired and dressed in attire which suggested Western rather than Oriental sensuousness, Wyn didn’t ‘look’ like a Hindu priestess — but the visual mis-match did add to staging’s the general lack of persuasiveness.

Robert Murray’s may not be the most silkily honeyed of tenors, but each phrase was flawlessly delivered, shaped with musical and dramatic intelligence and sensitivity. There was great tenderness in this portrayal: one could almost believe that — despite the disappointing let-down of his ‘second thoughts’, and in contrast to Pinkerton — he really did love his oriental beloved. The Act 3 Cantilène, ‘Lakmé! Lakmé! Ah! Viens dans la forêt profonde’, was a highlight of the evening, the high-lying lines proving no obstacle, projected without strain. Overall, Murray imbued Gérard with moral dignity: no mean feat.

Nicholas Lester was excellent asFrédéric. Lester has made a good impression in recent stagings at OHP’s — in Il barbiere di Siviglia, first as Fiorello and then as the eponymous barber — and here he once again demonstrated a firm, appealing baritone. With his stiff uprightness, moral self-righteousness and limited emotional awareness, this Frédéric reminded me — especially when he appeared in uniform to call Gérard to his duty (that is, repressing the Hindu uprising) — of Lechmere in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, a character who through his own short-comings reveals the more extraordinary depths and qualities of his friend.

As Mallika, Katie Bray blended her mezzo — which is supple and full of tone — alluringly with Wyn’s undulating lines in the ‘Flower Duet’. Bray has a lovely clean sound and projects strongly; it was a shame not to have the opportunity to hear more of her. David Soar was solid as Nilakantha. Though his tone was initially a little uncentred, he grew in stature through Act 2 and his solemn delivery, together with the magisterial richness and dark colours of his attractive bass, suggested both menace and authority. As Lakmé’s loyal servant, Hadji, Andrew Dickinson sympathetically sheltered the wounded Gérald in the forest, and sang his Act 3 aria with a true, lyrical line.

The libretto’s presentation of the Anglican oppressors as overbearing pompous prigs creates musico-dramatic problematic, for it’s not an angle that Delibes chooses to emphasise and the more prudish utterances of the three ladies — Ellen, Rose and Mrs Bentson — can come across with all the sophistication of the comic patter of G&S: indeed, in some of their utterances they did have the mark of ‘three little maids’. But, that said, Maud Millar showed considerable promise as Ellen — bright-toned, especially at the top, and technically assured; while Fleur de Bray’s Rose had comic presence and sparkle. As Mrs Bentson, Fiona Kimm showed her vocal experience, even if directed towards caricature as the ‘Englishwoman abroad’.

Across the cast, the French was not always clearly discernible; moreover, the surtitles were irritatingly mundane — and at times jarringly anachronistic: one cannot imagine the Hindus selling their wares in the market place, in the late-nineteenth century, assuring the English that ‘we won’t rip you off’.

Given the fairly small forces (especially of strings), the City of London Sinfonia sometimes struggled to summon the glistening refinement evoked by Delibes’s orchestration, but there was much fine playing, most notably from the flutes (doubling piccolo with sparkling brightness in the military march), oboe, bassoon, cellos and timpani. There was certainly considerable attention to the detail, and a sustained, thoughtful expressiveness to the instrumentalists’ phrasing; the individual voices could be clearly heard, as if characters in the opera — and it certainly sounded as if the players cared about the music. But, while conductor Matthew Waldren was in full command of the details, his approach was, I felt, overly fierce and forthright; Lakmé was performed at the Opéra-Comique in April 1883, two weeks after the death of Wagner, and while the shadow of Tristan might be felt in the love-death potion motif, a more limpid lethargy would at times have been preferable.

Despite these misgivings, though, Opera Holland Park put on a performance that is worth catching for its rarity value and lyrical vocalism.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information.

Lakmé, Fflur Wyn; Gérald, Robert Murray; Nilakantha, David Soar; Frédéric, Nicholas Lester; Mallika, Katie Bray; Ellen, Maud Millar; Rose, Fleur de Bray; Mrs Bentson, Fiona Kimm; Hadji, Andrew Dickinson; A Fortune Teller, Timothy Langston; A Chinese Merchant, Michael Bradley;
Pickpocket/Bohemian, Joseph Kennedy; Dancer, Lucy Starkey; Director, Aylin Bozok; Conductor, Matthew Waldren; Designer, Morgan Large; Lighting Designer, Howard Hudson; Mask Design, Ela Xora; City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus. Opera Holland Park, London

Thursday 9th July 2015.

Further performances take place on July 11, 15, 18, 23, 27 (The Christine Collins Young Artists performance), 29 and 31.

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