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Opera Holland Park

Delibes’ Lakmé (1883) is a late flower of the opéra-comique tradition, the only one of its composer’s twenty-or-so operatic works (mainly couched in the lighter French vein) to linger in the repertoire long-term. Well known for a couple of extracts, its entire score, in fact, is a delight of the first order, written in a characteristically Gallic manner, with clarity, wit and charm. 

Performances in the UK have been rare: its Covent Garden career began in 1910, with Tetrazzini and John McCormack in the leads, but ended — thus far, at least — the following year. So Opera Holland Park’s production in 2007 was welcome; welcome, too, the fact that the company mounted the piece again, in a new production, on July 9.

Designed by Morgan Large, Aylin Bozok’s staging could have done with more of the sheer color of the Orient that the piece traditionally deals in: the chorus of Indians was dressed in curiously pallid costumes. But with one notable exception it gave a good idea of the narrative, set in nineteenth-century India at the time of the Raj and — being a French work — mocking the English somewhat as well as criticizing them. 

The exception concerned the climax of the opera’s second act. In the first, Gérald, a British officer in the Indian army, has entered the precincts of an apparently deserted temple where he has encountered and fallen in love with Lakmé, daughter of the fanatical Brahmin priest, Nilakantha. It is for this sacrilegious act that Nilakantha determines to kill him, and — in the synopsis printed in the festival’s program book, as well as in all other accounts — Nilakantha stabs Gérald at the close of the religious festival at the end of Act II, effectively leaving him for dead. Not here. In this staging, Robert Murray’s Gérald merely keeled over all by himself, as if suffering a heart attack; in the circumstances it made little sense.

Fortunately, the evening’s music-making more than made up for such deficiencies. Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn sang the title role, offering all of the high-lying notes and tricksy decorations required for the famous bell song but also, crucially, adding in enough flesh-colored warmth to the tone to allow Delibes’ delicate but devotedly determined heroine some moments of real passion. Murray partnered her skillfully, his tender tenorial tones neatly delineating the character of the soldier torn between regimental duties and love, and eventually choosing the former, with tragic consequences for the woman who has saved him.  Murray’s ability to float and shape Delibes’ graceful lines served him and the piece well. 

As Nilakantha, bass David Soar summoned up appreciable vocal grandeur, the traditional venom of the angered priest, and a modicum of sympathy for one who has lost some of his power and prestige due to British rule. The secondary roles were effectively presented, especially by Fiona Kimm as the prissy English governess, Mistress Bentson — chief target of the French librettists’ satirical jibes; and by Andrew Dickinson as Lakmé’s loyal servant, Hadji.  

Dancer Lucy Starkey brought some of the visual exoticism to proceedings lacking elsewhere, both when acting as a kind of alter ego for Lakmé herself, and also when conveying, all by herself, the dance sequence in the second act called the Ballet des Bayadères — which much have shaved quite a figure off the budget.

In the pit, the City of London Sinfonia played the well-crafted score for all it was worth, while conductor Matthew Waldren explored and extolled its many subtle French niceties.  —George Hall

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