Bells, flowers, Lakmé

As I read the plot summary of Lakmé, waiting to get to the Bell Song and the Flower Duet, I checked off boxes: exotic setting, a rebellious daughter/temple priestess/goddess (?) with a religious fanatic father, English colonialists. Totally typical for later nineteenth-century French opera, but also total red meat Regie bait. Despite its two very popular Opera Moments, Lakmé is rarely performed in toto. Had anyone done the obvious and updated it in a rather noisy and political way? Or even staged it in a moderately contemporary fashion? So I went to see Lakmé at Opera Holland Park with great curiosity.

Is there a Regie Lakmé in here? Anyone care to report from Bydgoszcz?

But no! Aylin Bozok is a more lyrical sort of director and doesn’t go there. It’s arguably a tricky piece to pull off—the thin plot moves slowly (colonialist falls in love with mysterious priestess, father objects), the characters are flimsy, and the music, while uniformly pleasant, is fairly monotonous. It’s also Orientalism for people who think Aida isn’t obvious enough. But despite a idea portrayal of India, Bozok’s production is very tasteful. It looks Indian without hitting you over the head with clichés. That isn’t easy and it’s an admirable goal. (Bonus: no blackface.)

Unfortunately the result is terribly dull. The missing element? Romance, love, sex. Of course the erotic side of exotica leads us into difficult territory very quickly, but a story about forbidden love that leaves out the love (without anything to take its place) is a gloomy affair. All the sex is relegated to a single whirling dancer, and her choreography is less than amazing (note: there isn’t a credited choreographer, nor is the dancer’s name on the website–sorry, I didn’t buy a program book). The monotonous music, slow plot, bleak color palate (mostly blues, grays, and black), and rather static staging unite to make this a slog, particularly since the first two of three acts are performed without pause.

Much of this had to do with the casting and direction of the central couple. Fflur Wyn has an attractive, silvery soprano and sang the long title role with impressive accuracy and control. She is musically tasteful if not very French in style and her Bell Song was very impressive. (Her high E natural is not her best feature, but whose is? It was a cleaner rendition than the one which bafflingly won Cardiff Singer of the World a few weeks ago.) However, she seems like a friendly, outgoing type, a Morgana or a Despina, not the mysterious goddess figure she is made out to be.

When her tenorial love interest, Robert Murray as Gérald, entered in the company of obligatory supporting baritone Nicholas Lester as Frédéric, I almost burst out laughing. Lester is a towering barihunk with very shiny hair while Murray is, well, not tall and has been given a sorry excuse for a bouffant. I wasn’t familiar with either singer, but sometimes opera is obvious and I didn’t have to ask which was which. Like Wyn, Murray sounded quite good, with a full, plummy lyric sound. He and Wyn, however, had zero chemistry and as fatal romances go it wasn’t one to get too excited about.

As Lakmé’s father Nilakantha, bass-baritone David Soar sounded excellent but, likewise, the character remained blank. The chorus was also outstanding for a house of this modest size (though neither Delibes nor the production convinced me of the necessity of so many choruses), and the orchestra and Matthew Waldren’s conducting were fine. The supporting cast consists of Frédéric—tall baritone Lester, who has a pleasant voice—and some silly English ladies. They sing a number of ensembles, all of which sound very like the “you need women” quintet from Carmen and do virtually nothing for the plot. They would, however, had supplied color and humor were we in a production which had color and humor. Alas, we were not.

While pretty enough to listen to, this performance didn’t convince me that Lakmé is an opera worth much wider dissemination. Perhaps a riskier or more glamorous production could make a better, crazier, or more interesting case. But it’s now won a place on my list of “things I don’t need to see again.”

Lakmé. Opera Holland Park. 7/15/15. Full information here.

photos by Robert Workman

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