Chelsea Opera Group – Delibes’s Lakmé

Lakmé – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille after Pierre Loti’s novel Le Mariage de Loti [sung in French with English surtitles]

Lakmé – Haegee Lee
Gérald – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
Nilakantha – James Platt
Frédéric – Julien Van Mellaerts
Mallika – Polly Leech
Miss Ellen – Lorena Paz Nieto
Miss Rose – Caroline Carragher
Mistress Bentson – Sarah Pring
Hadji – Magnus Walker
A Fortune Teller – David Padua
A Chinese Merchant – John Vallance
A Gypsy – Keving Hollands

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Matthew Scott Rogers

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 25 February, 2024
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Chelsea Opera Group’s presentation of Delibes’s final completed opera Lakmé (1883) is timely in some respects. Set during the period of the British Raj and examining the confrontation between East and West (even if through the warped lens of European colonial assumptions) the opera illumines the growing public discourse today in evaluating the legacy of empire. It may have been convenient for the creators of such an opera in 19th century France to shift the focus on the uncomfortable truths of imperial enterprise and consequent cultural misunderstandings to Britain’s context, their rival in the global sphere. But for all the reductive simplicities and stereotypes of that Orientalising art in that era, it’s interesting that, on the opera stage at least, it was French exponents who drew attention to the cultural and political problems of empire in works such as this, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, and Massenet’s Thaïs and Le roi de Lahore, rather more than their English counterparts did. 

COG’s concert performance of Lakmé sidestepped the problem of how to produce such an opera now, though it is worth noting that Opera Holland Park did so as recently as 2015; ENO mounted Bizet’s work in 2016, and Dorset Opera Le roi de Lahore only last summer. Lakmé is surely of more than academic interest too in that its scenario partly derives from a novel by Pierre Loti, who witnessed the playing out of Western imperialism at first hand, and some elements of another of his novels found their way into the narrative for Madama Butterfly, an opera with whose theme Delibes’s work has much in common.

Not having to worry about cultural sensitivities in the absence of a staged production, it’s perhaps fair to say that the COG Chorus and Orchestra, along with Matthew Scott Rogers, took good note of purely musical ones. Premiered in the year of Wagner’s death but surprisingly little influenced by his huge advances in the genre of music drama, the opera comprises clearly delineated solo and choral numbers among accompanied recitatives. Accordingly the performers were alert to the score’s essentially refined style which might be deemed characteristically French with its fairly soft textures and delicate melodiousness. Although the strings were warm and atmospheric right from the Prélude, they also remained translucent and unobtrusive carriers of the musical narrative behind the voices, not relentless or overbearing. Woodwind also brought exemplary colour and personality, not least in the vivacious marketplace scene which opens Act Two, but also stayed within moderate bounds.

Haegee Lee (making a fine debut with COG) commanded an exacting technique in the florid writing for the title role: pinpoint accurate and clear in the famous ‘Bell Song’ for example, and sustaining a beautifully crisp line in lyrical passages. It wasn’t overloaded with colour or overwrought emotion in an Italianate manner, but was suitably controlled and almost disembodied, as befits the part of a priestess. Paradoxically it wasn’t until her lullaby at the start of Act Three, nursing the wounded Gérald, that her singing reached its boldest and most extrovert. Elgan Llŷr Thomas also made a conspicuous debut with COG, in the part of the British army officer who stirs Lakmé to love with disastrous consequences. He expressed himself with a gentle mellifluousness across a wide tenor range, and only in one brief passage did he come under slight strain. James Platt inhabited the role of the Brahmin Nilakantha, Lakmé’s father, with an impressively unyielding sonority and broad vibrato, as though issuing oracular pronouncements rather than engaging in ordinary human dialogue.

Polly Leech’s Mallika was a good counterweight to her mistress Lakmé, offering a solid, woody vocal register to provide ballast to Lee’s soaring lines in the celebrated ‘Flower Duet’, the only significant part of the score in which Mallika sings. Sprightly contributions from Sarah Pring, Lorena Paz Nieto, and Caroline Carragher marked the depictions of the English women, while Julien Van Mellaerts provided a level-headed candour as Frédéric, functioning somewhat like Sharpless to Gérald’s Pinkerton. Magnus Walker also gave a calmly discreet account of Hadji, Nilakantha’s servant. The COG Chorus sang with great alacrity, clearly relishing the various groups they represent at different points in the opera, for example clamouring and jostling with musical vigour as the Chinese and Hindu merchants at the beginning of Act Two, but exuding more mystical alacrity as the Brahmins in that Act’s finale. Given the opera’s decreasing presence in the theatre, COG acquitted itself masterfully in adding what is now a more or less a rare opera to its repertoire.

1 thought on “Chelsea Opera Group – Delibes’s Lakmé”

  1. Amazing performance by the illustrious and long-standing Chelsea Opera Group who came out of Covid lockdowns stronger than ever, and demonstrated yet again in this production of Lakme their ability to invigorate and revive operas that could disappear out of consciousness without the attention of fringe companies such as theirs. With the tragic near-loss of ENO currently, it is even more vital for the opera-loving public to support Chelsea Opera Group and other independent companies who exist WITHOUT public grant and provide a different but essential experience which is totally complementary to ROH. This was a magical evening where the lack of scenery in their concert performance took away nothing — in fact the music, led by indefatigable and inspirational conductor Matthew Scott Rogers, and performers, gave everything the mind needed to create a whole, totally-satisfying, operatic experience.

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