LÈo Delibes: LakmÈ

Certainly it is the melody of LakmÈ’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 LakmÈ at Opera
Holland Park.

Delibes’s LakmÈ 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 pÍcheurs de perles
(for which Delibes had served as chorus master in 1863), Meyerbeer’s
L’Africaine, and FÈlicien David’sLalla-Roukh , to name
but a few. The premiËre 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, LakmÈ is a colonial tale of
star-crossed lovers. When LakmÈ, 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 GÈrald, she incites
her father’s hunger for revenge against the occupying British. GÈrald,
returning her passion, neglects both his public and private obligations — as
his friend FrÈdÈric reminds him, his duties are to his nation and to his
fiancÈe, Miss Ellen. Incensed by the sacrilegious intrusion of a foreigner
into his sacred ground, Nilakantha swears vengeance: he asks LakmÈ to sing, to
attract the interloper, and stabs GÈrald when the latter cannot hide his
enchantment. As LakmÈ fetches the water from the sacred spring that will
restore GÈrald and protect their love for perpetuity, FrÈdÈric appears and
recalls GÈrald to his regimental duties — suppressing Indian insurgency —
an appeal to which GÈrald submits. When she returns, sensing that her lover
will not prove true, LakmÈ swallows the poisonous datura leaf. Too
late, GÈrald 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-SaÎns’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’ clichÈd, and the formal construction of the whole clunky and

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 LakmÈ (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,
CoppÈlia (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 dÈcor. 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 LakmÈ’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 LakmÈ’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 LakmÈ’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 ‘LÈgende’ 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 GÈrald. 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

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 CantilËne, ‘LakmÈ! LakmÈ! Ah! Viens
dans la forÍt profonde’, was a highlight of the evening, the high-lying
lines proving no obstacle, projected without strain. Overall, Murray imbued
GÈrard with moral dignity: no mean feat.

Nicholas Lester was excellent asFrÈdÈric. Lester has made a good
impression in recent stagings at OHP’s — in Il barbiere di
, 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
FrÈdÈric reminded me — especially when he appeared in uniform to call
GÈrard 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

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 LakmÈ’s loyal
servant, Hadji, Andrew Dickinson sympathetically sheltered the wounded GÈrald
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;
LakmÈ was performed at the OpÈra-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.

LakmÈ, Fflur Wyn; GÈrald, Robert Murray; Nilakantha, David Soar;
FrÈdÈric, 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.

image_description=LakmÈ at Opera Holland Park [Image by Opera Holland Park]
product_title=LÈo Delibes: LakmÈ
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: LakmÈ at Opera Holland Park [Image by Opera Holland Park]