Lakmé has done well by Opera Holland Park. The 2007 staging by Tom Hawkes positioned it firmly within a ‘Passage to India’ context, such that Aylin Bozok’s new production might reasonably have given the work a provocative overhaul. In the event, there is little here to detract from what – its occasional and discreet jibe at the British Raj aside – is a drama only tangentially concerned with political or cultural mores as opposed to the love-predicament that its three main protagonists are drawn into.
That said, the languorous orientalism of Morgan Large’s designs, abetted by the soft-focus lambency of Howard Hudson’s lighting, seem intent on ensuring that even the relatively few dramatic highpoints adhere to the bounds of an inward melodrama – not so much ‘safe’ as unfolded within the limits of its well-defined comfort zone: a perspective on this opera that seems intent on making a virtue out of its own innocuousness.
In purely musical terms, there is little with which to find fault. The cast is a strong one, dominated where necessary by Fflur Wyn’s assumption of the title-role which brings out Lakmé's warmth and underlying compassion as she contends with the culture clash between her high-priest father and her army-officer lover. Not that her portrayal is ever merely efficient, as is witnessed by the near-flawlessness of her coloratura in the once-famous ‘Bell Song’ or the deft winsomeness with which she dovetails with Mallika in the still-famous ‘Flower Duet’ (think British Airways).
In this latter role, Katie Bray makes for an empathetic sidekick – consoling and supportive without ever seeming spineless. Robert Murray finds gallantry and even a degree of nobility to offset the perplexity of Gérald, while David Soar overcame initial unsteadiness to deliver as convincing a portrayal of Nilakantha as possible given the stereotypical nature of the role as Delibes conceived it. The deployment of a dancer to represent Lakmé’s predicament is an overused device at present, but Lucy Starkey’s sheer charisma is almost its own justification.
The excellence of the performance is rounded out by elegant and sensitive singing from the Opera Holland Park Chorus, and an assured contribution from the City of London Sinfonia that responds ably to Matthew Waldren – the pathos of that ‘Flower Duet’ owing in no small part to the alertness of his conducting. A pity, though, that the first two Acts are given continuously, leading to a uniformity of pacing and drama such as the relatively short final Act cannot remedy in isolation. A break after the first Act would have been (would be) preferable.
Although it retains its popularity in France, elsewhere Lakmé tends to be regarded as little more than a period-piece these days. Ultimately, Delibes was never likely to achieve for opera what he had achieved in ballet with Coppélia or Sylvia, yet such does not prevent this piece from exuding either the consummate professionalism or the emotional warmth that were the hallmarks of its composer’s mature stage-works. For all of its limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, this latest production nonetheless manages to present his music in an enticing and positive light.