Opera Holland Park – Lakmé

Lakmé [Sung in French with English surtitles]

Shiva – Benjamin Whitson
Nilakantha – Graeme Broadbent
Lakmé – Allison Bell
Mallika – Antonia Sotgiu
Hadji – Robert Burt
Ellen – Pamela Hay
Rose – Katherine Bond
Miss Bentson – Anne Collins
Gérald – Philip O’Brien
Frédéric – Grant Doyle
A pickpocket – Laurence Cole
Chinese merchant – Melvin Tan
A fortune teller – Alex Routledge

Dancers – Hetel Gokal, Arina Ii, Liz Lea, Shamita Ray & Ulala Yamamoto

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Noel Davies

Tom Hawkes – Director
James Clutton – Producer
Peter Rice – Designer
Colin Grenfell – Lighting Designer
Jenny Weston – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 3 July, 2007
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

Allison Bell as Lakmé and Philip O'Brien as GeraldOrientalism was fashionable in arts circles of the late 19th-century and to a certain extent it survives to this day when artists, writers, composers and even film-makers (think of Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, Gustave Flaubert, E. M. Forster and, by association, David Lean) decide to give a western gloss to the exoticism of the east. Is the general public still entranced by tales of the Orient? Probably not as much now as then, when, say, the likes of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila”, Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” and Massenet’s “Thaïs” were written. We view these pieces now with a certain detachment, brought about by historical perspective and the distant passage of time.

To this list you could add Leo Delibes’s “Lakmé”, in which the composer tried to prove he could write a serious opera. Although he produced some thirty stage works – both ballets and operas – his fame mainly rests on his dance music for Coppelia and Sylvia, which are a constant part of the ballet repertoire, and just two operas, “Le roi l’a dit” and “Lakmé”, neither of which are performed at all regularly. London has not seen “Lakmé” staged in living memory. It has to be admitted that “Lakmé” is not a great opera. In fact there is so much dancing in it, that it seems obvious that Delibes could not eschew his passion for writing ballet scores, but then he was composing at a time when most operas worth their salt included interpolated ballet interludes. However, it is still opportune to see such a good production as the current one by Opera Holland Park. It’s hard to imagine it being done any better, and it is easily the sort of production that English National Opera could well add to its repertoire. In fact OHP’s production of “Lakmé” is a prime example of how to handle a combination of opera and dance.

The plot is threadbare. The setting is India at the time of the British Raj, when the British army is trying to halt the religious practices of the Brahmin priests. Two English officers wander into a sacred garden with the daughters of the British governor and their governess. When one of the officers, Gerald, gets left behind, he encounters Lakmé, daughter of Nilakantha, the Brahmin priest. When they meet surreptitiously, they are both overwhelmed by their attraction for each other. The rest of the opera depicts the development and impending tragedy of their doomed love. Interspersed with this are portrayals of the British in India, their blinkered Christian view of the native population – Miss Bentson, the governess, cannot stand all the noise of the market place – and they are seen very much as the unwanted interlopers.

A scene from Opera Holland Park's first production of LakméSide by side with the development of the plot, the piece is punctuated by lavish scenes of dancing by the Devadasis, the female temple dancers dedicated to the service of the gods. Jenny Weston’s choreography captures beautifully the traditions representing the fiercest of all the gods, the goddess Kali, the elephant god Ganesha and the supreme deity Shiva (the last stunningly performed by Benjamin Whitson).

The enduring popularity of some of the music from “Lakmé” mainly lies in its use for television commercials, mainly by British Airways, which uses the Act One ‘Flower Duet’. It is a beautiful piece perhaps now ruined for ever because of such associations. The other surviving aria is the ‘Bell Song’ in Act Two, sung by Lakmé herself, a vehicle for showing off particularly outstanding coloratura soprano voices such as Patti, Tetrazzini and Joan Sutherland. It’s not an easy part but Allison Bell copes very well with some virtuoso singing. The role of Gérald is a little unforgiving, having to be played with a mixture of romantic infatuation and British uprightness – remember the Regiment, Carruthers, type of thing. However, Philip O’Brien imbues the part with as much élan as he can. As Nilakantha, Lakme’s father, Graeme Broadbent, looking like Ming the Merciless, is a tower of massive strength, a character who is a mixture of rabid fundamentalism crossed with love and concern for his daughter. There is a nice cameo from Anne Collins as the governess, looking for all the world in her solar topee like Joan Sims in “Carry On Up the Khyber”.

The large ensemble of singers and dancers are used to good effect by director Tom Hawkes in a production with much action, movement and dance, as well as the all-important singing. Peter Rice’s bamboo-look designs evoke the place and the era without ever overdoing the exoticism. Noel Davies and the City of London Sinfonia play Delibes’s luscious score with both passion and discretion.

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