MASSENET: Le Roi de Lahore

He has given each a healthy dose of almost unknown French
operas. There has been a lot of grumbling in sito and even
complaints of a French overdose; but most opera lovers in the rest of the
world are quite happy with the resuscitation of some scores otherwise only
known by a few arias. Though Le Roi de Lahore is not unknown on
record due to Mr. and Mrs. Bonynge, assisted by Milnes, Lima and Ghiaurov,
these DVD’s will be a world premiËre for most of us, especially as this
is the first performance of a new critical edition by the conductor, the late
Marcello Viotti, who died a few months afterwards.

There is a reason Le Roi was almost forgotten. Massenet was 35
when the work premiËred and he scored his first big success—Puccini had
almost the same age when he had his breakthrough with Manon Lescaut.
There is much in the score, especially in the orchestral part, that reminds
us of the genius the Frenchman would become. The music is lovely and tuneful
in a general way but without the kind of melody that stays in the ear and
that would result in the triumph for HÈrodiade four years later. For
a long time only the baritone’s aria ‘Promesse de mon
avenir’ survived.

The singers of these Venice performances were not cast with an eye on
“le fysique du role.” Ana Maria Sanchez especially reminds us a
little bit too much of Sweet, Eaglen, Pollet, Neves and Voigt before her
surgery. Normally I couldn’t care less; but on my plasma screen, and
during the many close-ups, the credibility gap is sometimes a bit stretched.
Nor is Mrs. Sanchez helped by some ungainly costumes during the first acts. A
pity as she has something to offer. She has an exceptional warm enveloping
middle voice (reminding me of the best of FranÁoise Pollet) and she can float
her notes in a delicious way. Under pressure the voice sometimes (not always)
will turn somewhat shrill and even flat. During duets and ensembles one hears
that notwithstanding a soft grained timbre she has volume to spare. Her
French is quite good and in general she is an improvement on Joan Sutherland,
completely incomprehensible and no longer very fresh voiced as she had been
singing for 30 years.

Albanian tenor Giuseppe Gipala too is a marked improvement on
Decca’s Luis Lima. He has a clear, ringing voice, probably a bit kissed
by the mike as the sound is less exciting and smaller in the house. Though he
is best known for his Italian roles, no sobs or mannerisms cling to him in
his stylish singing with an almost perfect pronunciation. At times he reminds
me of a good Alfredo Kraus and that’s high praise indeed.

Almost the same can be said of baritone Vladimir Stoyanov as Scindia with
his rounded and very homogeneous baritone. The voice is better focused than
Milnes on Decca and he doesn’t quite get the applause he deserves after
an impressive ‘Promesse de mon avenir.’ Indeed, the public
throughout the evening is rather lukewarm; probably not completely at ease
with the relatively unknown score.

Cristina Sogmaister as Kaled has a nice Falcon mezzo, with more colour in
the voice, than most of these ladies show. She succeeds very well in her aria
and in the big duet with Sanchez where for a moment one almost has the
feeling Massenet has too intently studied the famous LakmÈ/Selika duet until
one realizes that LakmÈ came into being six years later.

As Indra, Federico Sacchi sings with a bright and well focused voice. It
is a short but important role. He, too, succeeds in bettering
Ghiaurov’s rather woolly account.

Only Riccardo Zanellato as Timour disappoints. There is just loud noise at
the start, though the sound marginally improves. He is not too sure of
himself and is always looking at the conductor when he should be doing
something else.

As conductor Marcello Viotti himself prepared the new critical edition, he
has his work cut out for him. He is of course not handicapped as Bonynge was
by a star on her way down. Viotti doesn’t linger and doesn’t
push. There is no camera on him during the performance and he doesn’t
think it necessary to use some antics during the overture. One doesn’t
even notice that there is a conductor. So, naturally, the tempi flow.

I’m less enthusiastic about the production, though I realize that
Le Roi is an almost impossible task. The first two acts are just
another love triangle and then the hero dies. In the third act he is in
heaven and gets permission to return to earth. He once again is reunited with
his love until she commits suicide, whereupon he, too, according to the
conditions of heaven, dies and the lovers ends the opera happily, once more
reunited in death.

This theme that has much in common with the Greek legend of
Orpheus doesn’t work very well in this Indian subcontinent
version. And, Massenet treats it very seriously without a wink. In our
cynical times some snickering is due, which director Arnaud Bernard helps
provoke. While the two first acts are played at face value, the heavenly act
makes fun of everything. Heaven for Bernard is a world where Indian lords and
ladies can forget their heritage and all at once switch to Western evening
clothes and have dinner in the best Western High Society style. God Indra
makes his entrance wheeled in on a giant plaster elephant painted in silver.
And, at the end of the act everybody, dead lover king included, pose proudly
in front of a photograph. In the meantime we have the obligatory ballet, half
Western, half Indian with an old movie running over the heads of the dancers
who abundantly prove that even in heaven fully synchronized movement is not
assured. After this amusing intermezzo, it is somewhat difficult to take the
horrible fate and the resulting arias and duets of the protagonists

In such a colourful opera costuming is important and once more I have to
grumble. Costumes are all somewhat vaguely Indian, all vaguely stylized; and,
what is now almost a law in costuming, members of the same group are not
allowed any individuality. For soldiers I can understand the reasons; but
ladies in evening dress, or market women? Does the production team really
think the audience is too stupid to understand who is whom? Mind you, nothing
disturbs the music. The singers are not asked to deliver in difficult poses
or with their back to the public. Mad ideas are not running loose. It’s
just that the director either didn’t know what to do with the opera or
didn’t take it too seriously. “Eurotrash” is definitely not
to be seen and I’ve even a feeling Mrs. Harrington could have lived
with it.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Jules Massenet: Le Roi de Lahore
product_title=Jules Massenet: Le Roi de Lahore
product_by=Giuseppe Gipali (Alim), Ana Maria Sanchez (Sit‚), Vladimir Stoyanov (Scindia), Federico Sacchi (Indra), Cristina Sogmaister (Kaled), Riccardo Zanellato (Timour), Carlo Agostini (un capo), Orchestra e Coro Teatro La Fenice Venezia conducted by Marcello Viotti.
Directed by Arnaud Bernard
TV-director: Tiziano Mancini
product_id=Dynamic 33487 [2CDs]