Dorset Opera Festival 2023 – Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore – Amar Muchhala, Seljan Nasibli & Michael Anthony McGee; directed by Ella Marchment; conducted by Jeremy Carnall

Le roi de Lahore – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Louis Gallet after a play by Alexandre Soumet based on an episode in the Mahābhārata [sung in French with English surtitles]

Alim – Amar Muchhala
Kaled – Kezia Bienek
Scindia – Michael Anthony McGee
Sitâ – Seljan Nasibli
Timour – Tim Bagley
Indra – Julian Close
Village Elder – Jay Broadhurst

Dorset Opera Festival Chorus & Orchestra
Jeremy Carnall

Ella Marchment – Director
Adam Haigh – Choreographer
Rufus Martin – Designer
Stewart J. Charlesworth – Costumes
James Smith – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 July, 2023
Venue: Coade Theatre, Bryanston, Blandford Forum, Dorset, UK

Alim, the eponymous king of Lahore of Massenet’s third opera for Paris (1877) must be a glutton for punishment. Audiences of 19th century opera, in particular, are used to melodramatic stories involving thwarted, doomed lovers, whose relationships bring more suffering to themselves than happiness. Undeterred, Alim chooses to endure such a trial a second time. Having been treacherously killed by his chief minister, Scindia, out of jealousy because Sitâ returns the king’s love and not his, Alim finds himself in the Hindu paradise on Mount Meru. He asks the god Indra to return to earth so that he can enjoy Sitâ’s love again, which is granted but on condition that he be reincarnated in the form of a beggar, and his fate become inextricably bound with hers. The crowds at Scindia’s coronation recognise the voice and appearance of Alim in the mysterious commoner, who harangues the new king. Although Sitâ escapes a forced marriage to Scindia and is reunited with Alim, they are cornered by the tyrant’s soldiers. When Sitâ stabs herself, Alim dies with her.

Although the opera owes more to 19th century Orientalist fantasies than to actual Indian sacred myth or history, Ella Marchment’s production, with visually arresting designs by Rufus Martin, takes some inspiration from Eastern costume and design, but not condescendingly so. The warm glow of red, pink or purple lighting evokes a sense of latent danger as much as anything hedonistic or sensuous; the half-domed bays of shuttered windows for both the palace, and the temple in which Sitâ has dedicated herself to sacred service, manifest a sedate, slick style that resembles more a Western villa than any Eastern domain; and the chorus of priestesses could almost be Christian nuns as much as Hindu acolytes. Lavish as the spectacle is (which combining set and costumes together in the comparatively small confines of the Coade Theatre at Bryanston) the real coup de théâtre however is Julian Close’s solemn, stationary presence as Indra on a pedestal for much of Acts One and Two, before dramatically coming to life in the paradise scene of Act Three and addressing the soul of Alim.

After a sturdy Overture, reaching a somewhat Tchaikovskian climax, more subtly integrated and sustained colours tend to permeate Jeremy Carnall’s conducting of the score with the Dorset Opera Festival Orchestra. The Chorus don’t recede into a comfortably sonic background, however, but offer a bold musical dimension in this performance which adds impetus to the spectacle of this grand opera.

Amar Muchhala sings robustly, both as king and beggar, commanding attention with strenuous feeling and yearning, as he confronts invading Muslim armies alongside Scindia’s wiles. Seljan Nasibli gives an equally strong account of his beloved Sitâ, projecting steely vocal lines with urgency, not mere tender acquiescence as a devout priestess. Together in their Act Two duet they rise to quite Puccinian heights of passion.

Michael Anthony McGee is no caricature villain, but develops the part of Scindia with real character, by turns persuasive and even soave (as in his own declaration of love to Sitâ) at others more fearsome or menacing, such that he seems the driving force of the drama, not the love interest of Alim and Sitâ alone. The high priest Timour mediates between the conflicted characters, expressing compassion and generosity, while Alim’s solicitous servant Kaled is given more insistence by Kezia Bienek. Close’s Indra is also darkly, calmly authoritative, a dignified centre of gravity amidst the drama’s emotional turmoil.

The opera may have been composed by Massenet for the fabulous setting and resources of Paris’s Palais Garnier, but this production shows what an impact can still be made on a much smaller scale with imagination and attention to detail. Despite the work’s melodramatic elements there is a seam of emotional sincerity which is revealed here to be worth the occasional revival.

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