Review: Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008

Tulsa and Paris are both prominent centers of the world petroleum industry. Tulsa has been associated with oil, gas and energy corporations since the early 20th century, when it became known that a great reservoir of oil lay nearby. Paris is the home of Total S. A., one of the world’s “Big Six” integrated oil giants, which is headquartered at La Defense, the industrial center just beyond the Parisian arrondisements.

My guess is that, notwithstanding periodic communication between Tulsan and Parisian experts on such subjects as oil drilling, there has been rather less discussion between Tulsan and Parisian experts on the subject of the exotic operas of the French Third Republic (perhaps in part because of a seeming decline of enthusiasm for these works of Jules Massenet and Leo Delibes in the French capital).

But, in fact, Delibes’ “Lakme” has had an American Connection from the very start. The opera dates from the time when sculptor Frederic Bartholdi and engineer Gustave Eiffel were completing the work on the Statue of Liberty in France before transporting it to New York City. The role of Lakme was written for New Yorker Marie van Zandt. Paris imbibed the exotic creation of a Hindu priestess singing poetic French with an American accent.

Delibes’ mentor and teacher, composer Adolphe Adam, wrote both the ballet “Giselle” and almost four dozen operas. Only Adam’s ballet is performed regularly these days.

Delibes is perhaps a bit better known these days for his ballet “Coppelia” than “Lakme”. “Coppelia” is based, of course, on the very Tale of E. T. A. Hoffmann, from which Offenbach derived part of his most famous opera. Surely, “Coppelia” contains one of the half dozen most familiar symphonic treatments of the Romantic Era waltz.

Aimez-vous Delibes?

Among the admirers of Delibes’ ballets (“Sylvia” also holds a place in the ballet repertoire) was Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who famously proclaimed Delibes’ music superior to Brahms’. Since Tchaikovsky was considered no fan of Brahms’ compositions, some commentators have interpreted this as a backhanded “compliment” meant to slight Delibes.

I think it is more charitable to simply regard Tchaikovsky as someone who truly liked Delibes’ music. Only a handful of composers have succeeded in producing lasting hits in both the fields of opera and full-length ballet. Tchaikovsky and Delibes are two. Once you add Prokofiev to this list, it becomes hard to come up with many more examples. As a young fan of Adolphe Adam’s famous pupil, Tchaikovsky surely found Delibes to be an inspiration for his own transformative accomplishments in ballet and opera.

Television commercials have established what probably may be the most recognizable Delibes melody in Great Britain and the United States, by adopting the early Act I duet between Lakme and her servant Mallika (“Viens, Mallika”) as the music heard in commercials for British Airways, Ghirardelli Chocolates and NBC-TV’s “Las Vegas”.

There are a couple of generations of opera-goers, most of whom are unfamiliar with Delibes’ blockbuster. It is an opera filled with infectious melody, color and exoticism, and fits nicely the lighter and more flexible operatic voices that have become a significant feature of the current opera landscape.

Every member of the cast, down to the relatively small role of Lakme’s servant Hadji, is blessed with beautiful music to sing, and each of the male characters has at least one mellifluous aria of his own.

But none of this is ever performed, except as a vehicle for a leggiero soprano with a vibrant coloratura technique. The French sopranos Lily Pons and Mado Robin and the American Beverly Sills would be 20th century examples. (Dame Joan Sutherland, with a heavier voice, but with the requisite coloratura flexibility, was, as in so many coloratura soprano roles, the exception to the rule.)

French soprano Natalie Dessay is the most famous contemporary Lakme, but, as will be detailed below, Coburn’s portrait of the Hindu priestess proves that another American should join van Zandt and Sills on the list of significant American interpreters of the role.

Of course, many opera critics, like the folks back home in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” have been “taught to hate” the opera, although there are probably more critics that just know they would dislike it if they were ever to see it, than have ever seen it performed.

The opera has plot elements that do not seem promising when you read the plot synopsis. Lakme expires by eating a datura flower, a relative of the North American jimson weed. Gerald – as reckless with his female relationships as any tenor character in all of opera – is walking with his fiancee in the marketplace one moment, and, separating from her briefly, is stabbed by the father of the Hindu priestess that unexpectedly has become the object of Gerald’s affection.

But the opera more or less works in performance. I suspect that a stage director willing to approach the opera’s story as being more substantive than its reputation, may actually find the process of bringing it to life an interesting assignment. (This review is not the place to discuss the staging of future productions of the work, but I may do so in a forthcoming “Reflections on Lakme and Gerald” essay.)

At the time of the performance being reviewed, however, the Tulsa Opera was the only company in the world that had announced that they would be staging “Lakme”. The Tulsa Opera may seem to some an unlikely company to tackle of revival of this opera, until one considers that the title role is the perfect vehicle for displaying the immense vocal and acting talents of Sarah Coburn. And there are special reasons why Coburn has an opera company in Eastern Oklahoma desiring to show off her skills.

[Below: Sarah Coburn as Lakme; edited image, based on photograph from Tulsa Opera.]

The Tulsa Opera has been in existence for 60 years, and typically mounts three works a year, each performed three times. It is one of the many regional opera companies that provide opportunities for young American performers, some of whom return to Tulsa regularly. In this production, the Nikalantha (Marcus DeLoach), Frederic (Kyle Pfortmiller) and Mrs Bentson (Korby Myrick) have appeared in Tulsa previously.

All of these regulars hail from and reside in other parts of the United States. Also returning to Tulsa is the Mallika (India-born Priti Gandhi, well known to San Diego Opera audiences, here playing the role of a Hindu priestess’ servant and confidante).

Up until this year, Sarah Coburn has never performed at the Tulsa Opera. The rising young diva hails from Muskogee, less than an hour’s ride on the Muskogee Turnpike and other Eastern Oklahoma roads from Tulsa’s Performing Arts Center, the Tulsa Opera’s home.

Coburn’s Oklahoma ties are unreproachable. Her physican father, who practiced obstetrics and gynecology in the Muskogee area, is presently the junior United States Senator from the State of Oklahoma.

Thus, the stars aligned themselves to create a spectacular event. Tulsa Opera was able to secure Sarah Coburn to celebrate its 60th anniversary. Coburn was able to show off what should become her signature role before an audience that would rise as one at the performance’s end in a heartfelt standing ovation.

Tulsa is in the American Heartland, so as soon as Conductor Carol I. Crawford (whose San Francisco Opera roots include the Musical Directorship of Western Opera Theatre) took her place at the podium, she led the orchestra in a spirited (and remarkably well-sung performance by the standing audience) rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”.

After the opera’s ponderous opening chords, the bustling marketplace music, and a soft brooding Oriental theme, the Tulsa Opera Orchestra launched into a preview of the lush melody of Lakme and Gerald’s first act love duet.  When one considers the great Tchaikovskian melodies in the work of the Russian master that many regard as the high point of the Romantic era, one can appreciate why Tchaikovsky regarded Delibes’ music, which abounds in expansive melodies, so highly.

The Tulsa Opera production’s sets were designed by G. Alan Rusnak, who has created the sets for so many of the productions of the New Orleans Opera.  The production is serviceable, with a bright and colorful second act marketplace scene that is described below.

(I found the first and third act sets to have a more sombre appearance than I would prefer; but one can imagine a freshening of the sets and a redesign of how they are lighted, that could assure their usefulness and longevity, at least until some future new production of “Lakme” can be devised.)

The colorful costumes were mostly from a different production altogether – those of Mark Thompson for Opera Australia (previously shared with Opera de Montreal). Patricia Mueller is credited with the military costumes.  Although Tulsa Opera did discuss the possibility of renting the Opera Australia’s sets as well as Thompson’s costumes, the transportation costs from the Southern Hemisphere proved prohibitive.

Rusnak frames his first and third act sets with a tropical forest canopy (with gray-green hued hanging moss).  To the right at mid-stage there is a Hindu temple.  At stage left there is an altar that contains Lakme’s ceremonial jewelry. These structures edge Lakme’s sacred garden, which elsewhere is surrounded by a bamboo fence that connects at intervals with pagoda-topped decorative posts.

As the Tulsa chorus intones its hypnotic invocation to the goddess “Blanche Dourga”, with the choreographed arm and hand gestures we associate with Hindu religious rituals, we get our first impressions of Nilakantha and Lakme.

Nilakantha is a major role, traditionally assigned to a veteran bass-baritone of “star” status.  DeLoach has a lighter voice than I associate with the part, but he performed the role most satisfactorily. Soon we hear Coburn, singing at first from the rear of the stage out of audience view. As she emerges from the temple, costumed in an elegant red-orange dress hemmed in gold, we know we are in the presence of a major Lakme.

The role of Lakme, despite the extraordinarily difficult second act coloratura showpiece, the “Bell Song”, consists of sweet melodies that must be sung expressively with a sustained legato.  In much of the role, she sings alone, but she must blend in an early first act quartet with Nilakantha, Mallika and Hadji, followed by the “flower duet” which Coburn and Priti Gandhi performed affectingly, to the obvious delight of the Tulsa audience. Then Lakme, Hadji and Mallika step onto a boat (the boat itself unseen by the audience) and glide offstage.

The libretto of “Lakme” abounds in references to flowers and other natural phenomena.  If one were to delete every sentence in the libretto containing a botanical, ornithological or zoological reference, “Lakme” would prove to be a very short opera indeed. The opera’s libretto was inspired by Julien Viaud’s Le Mariage de Loti, and, like much of Viaud’s works, is associated with the impressionistic movement in painting.

Viaud (who referred to himself as Loti), was a French naval officer who pushed the envelope on the French military’s tolerance for its officers and men “going native” with the indigenous women of the French colonies. His loosely biographical writings were wildly popular in Paris, influencing Marcel Proust, and inspiring Gauguin to travel to Tahiti (where most of Mariage de Loti takes place) to paint women and flowers and to try his own hand at “going native”.

In the post-colonial present, we may not appreciate the nuances of how the French and British regarded each others’ attitudes towards their colonies. But the British military (so the French observed) discouraged the idea of fraternizing with native women.  It is obvious that Delibes and his librettists intentionally set out to satirize British colonial attitudes (at least those that fit the Parisians’ stereotypes of them).

The very next scene of Act I shows this French idea of what colonial British behavior was like. A party of five appears, consisting of two British officers (Frederic, the only one who has been in India long enough to understand anything, and Gerald), the latter’s fiancee Miss Ellen, her sister Rose, and the governess Mrs Bentson. Mark Thompson, the Opera Australia costume designer has fun with the Victorian era dresses of the trio of ladies. Mrs Bentson is in black, Ellen in a pale green, and Rose wears, well, rose. Mrs Bentson and Ellen have broad-brimmed, feathered hats, Rose a simpler straw hat.

In attempting to get a glimpse of the sacred temple garden, Mrs Bentson accidentally knocks down part of the bamboo fence and the five invade the garden, even over Frederic’s protestations that this is sacred to the Hindu underground resistance (led by Nilakantha) who will regard the Britons being there as sacrilege. But that does not stop Mrs Bentson from criticizing the Hindu culture and Rose from rummaging through the altar and finding Lakme’s jewels.

The Party of Five’s adventure is sung to something so much like the Quintet from Bizet’s “Carmen”, between Carmen and her four criminal gypsy partners in smuggling and brigandry, that Delibes would seem to be plagiarizing Bizet, unless he intended it, as I tend to suspect, as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Bizet’s great masterpiece. I propose the name “The Britons are Brigands” Quintet.

Next we take the measure of Gerald with his charming first duet with Miss Ellen, followed by a reprise of the British Brigands quintet. Gerald, like Don Jose in “Carmen” gets to sing love music in the same act to both his hometown sweetheart and an exotic new acquaintance with whom he has fallen instantly in love.

Eric Margiore (Gerald), having been featured in both the Quintet and the duet with Ellen, remains alone in the sacred garden for his solo first aria, Prendre le dessin d’un bijou, recording his enchantment with the idea of meeting the woman whom these jewels adorn. As Margiore’s Gerald shares his dreams and fantasies with us, we soon realize that, only a moment after Miss Ellen’s departure, thoughts of her have slipped out of his mind.

[Below: Eric Margiore (Gerald) and Sarah Coburn (Lakme); edited image, based on photograph from Tulsa Opera.]

Margiore won his bel canto spurs by stepping into the role of Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani” at the Saint Louis Opera on short notice. His performance as Gerald was also successful and suggests the need for many more performances of French and bel canto opera to utilize effectively the bumper crop of leggiero tenors that has emerged in the new milennium.

Next Delibes juxtaposes musical themes highlighting the different cultures. Lakme and her servants glide back onto stage to the flower duet theme, while the military music is heard (resembling the music associated with Don Jose’s regiment, another seeming homage to “Carmen”).

While Gerald hides, watching her standing alone in her sacred garden, Lakme sings a superb solo aria, which Coburn delivered expressively, demonstrating a peerless legato in perfect control, as she did in each of her legato arias that occur in every act. As Coburn’s Lakme sings, Margiore’s Gerald creeps from point to point in the garden, suddenly revealing himself to her.

When Gerald appears, she is first startled, then fascinated. We become aware that it is not just Gerald’s mind that is wandering towards the idea of an unsanctioned love affair. For her, a liaison with a British officer (particularly one so passionate and with such remarkably French sensibilities) would be as exotic as his with a Hindu priestess.

Exuding charm, Margiore begins the art of seduction, first with a persuasive first duet with Coburn, whose melody is based on descending and ascending intervals, so characteristic of Delibes’ melodic style. This is followed by the irresistable music of their love duet, first introduced in the opera’s orchestral prologue. By the time their love theme is reprised by the two in unison, we become convinced that this love affair, which seems so improbable when one reads the plot synopsis, is one in which we can truly believe.

There is one important non-believer in the idea of a Gerald-Lakme liaison – her father Nilikantha, whose rage at discovering evidence of the invasion of the sacred space, sets in motion the events of what I think is one of the most interesting acts in all of French opera – Act II of “Lakme”.

The word sombre does not apply to Rusnak’s Second Act sets – the commercial center of an Indian town. Center stage are rows of steps that lead to colorfully ornamented structures built closely together. At stage right is a tavern, open to the street, with an outside balcony, enjoyed by the tavern’s patrons. (One could imagine Rusnak’s sets serving as a model for a new Disneyland theme area – say an “Aladdin’s Marketplace”.)

There is the opportunity for more humorous jabs at the British characters. As Mrs Bentson continues to find much to dislike about her surroundings, a native steps forward, on two separate occasions, ostensibly to protect her from the mob surrounding her, but each time pickpocketing another of her possessions. Gerald is back in tow for his domestic duties, walking with his fiancee through the marketplace. He and Frederic are in mauve uniforms with orange cuffs, fancy epaulets and black knee boots.

DeLoach pleased the Tulsa audience with a sympathetic presentation of Nilakantha’s famous aria. But it is what happens next that assures that this opera will never really disappear when there are singers of Coburn’s caliber (not to mention her beauty and charm). With Nilakantha and Lakme disguised as beggars (Lakme’s rags covering what will be revealed to be a salmon and gold trimmed dress), she sings the song of the daughter of a pariah who rescues the god Brahma’s son Vishnu from wild animals.

To confront the wild beast the pariah’s daughter of the song uses a magical instrument consisting of circular rows of bells. Twice Lakme sings the rapid coloratura of the Bell Song (Air des Clochettes), with its unexpected pitches, trills and runs, as her servant Hadji (Steven Walz) twirls a replica of the wand of bells described in the song. Nilakantha (DeLoach) searches the crowd hoping that her lover, whose identity is unknown to him, will appear from the crowd.

When Gerald and Frederic do return, Gerald recognizes Lakme and cries out, revealing his identity to Nilakantha and his retinue of assassins. The latter are instructed to separate Gerald from his friends and army comrades, but to leave Nilakantha the privilege of murdering him.

Personal danger never appears to phase Lakme and Gerald who launch into love duets, both new and reprised. She reveals that she, with her loyal servants, Hadji and Mallika, have arranged a secret residence for the two of them to live. A public procession honoring the goddess Dourga interrupts the private affairs of the principals. Frederic (Pfortmiller) begins to comprehend that Gerald seems about to “go native”, ominously with the daughter of the leader of the anti-colonialists, with unfathomable consequences likely to follow.

Nilakantha’s men, in fact, do surround Gerald. Nilakantha wounds him, but does not kill him, as Lakme and her servants retrieve her injured lover to take him to her hideaway as the act ends.

I would not be surprised if “Lakme” stage directors find the third act the most baffling to stage. Although the action is fairly static (Gerald has been subject to Lakme’s healing power, but is still weak and spends part of the act reclining), it continues the Delibes effusion of melody centered around the lovers. But it also adds the element that she for whose love he almost lost his life, is prepared to die with him, or die for him, if he will take part in a Hindu ritual that will bind them forever.

Frederic has found the hideaway (and soon after him Nilakantha).  The chance of an operatic story-book ending – Lakme and Gerald living happily ever after either in this world or in eternity – becomes confused when Frederic points out that Gerald’s regiment is leaving in an hour. We hear the military music again. Frederic forcefully asserts that Gerald needs to be with his comrades in arms, a point to which Gerald seems responsive, and that he is engaged to Ellen, a point which seems not to resonate with Gerald at all.

At the last moment, Gerald accepts Lakme’s invitation to drink from the chalice that binds them forever, and she informs her apparently satisfied father that Gerald’s status has changed and he has become one with her.  There the opera ends, moot on the question as to whether Gerald deserts the army and becomes one with the Hindu community (of course, sans Lakme), joins his regiment but “goes native” when not required to be in uniform, or returns to the life he would have led with Ellen had Mrs Bentson not knocked over that bamboo fence.

Although the Tulsa Performing Arts Center is hardly a small house (with approximately 2400 seats), the acoustics are particularly friendly to voices of lesser weight than might be required for some of the larger American opera houses. All of the cast contributed to a well-received performance. Kyle Pfortmiller was a particularly effective Frederic.

The stage direction of Johnathon Pape always moved the story along. In this successful performance of an opera with a large role for the chorus, special mention must be made of the fine work of the Tulsa Opera Chorus, and chorusmaster Kostis Protopapas (recently named the Interim Director of the Tulsa Opera).

But no matter how successful the cast is on balance, the title role of the opera is so dominant in every act that discussion of the performances begin and end with how she performed the assignment.  Coburn achieved a stunning success, and deserves invitations to opera companies throughout the world to demonstrate how enjoyable this opera really can be when performed by an artist who meets every requirement of the role.