Review: Evelyn Pollock, Chad A. Johnson in Revelatory Florida Grand Opera “Lakme” – Miami, February 28, 2009

For the third time in a 365 day period, I am reviewing a performance of Delibes’ fascinating opera, “Lakme”, which appears to be building its fan base for an eventual return to the standard opera repertory, much in the way that an opera by Delibes’ close friend, Georges Bizet, “The Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs de Perles)” seems in the 21st century to be more popular than it ever was in the 19th or 20th.

The latest American city to mount “Lakme”  is Miami, which, between its Downtown Miami Biscayne Bay home in the beautfiul Ziff Ballet Opera Theater within the Adriene Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County and its second home in the Broward County Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, scheduled eight performances. The performances had the same casts, except that two pairs of artists were assigned the two principal roles, Lakme and Gerald, and those pairs alternated performances, with four each.

The two teams were Leah Partridge, a particular Miami favorite from the adjoining state of Georgia, who gave a wonderful performance in tandem with the Gerald of Bryan Griffin, an alumnus of the Chicago Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. The second team consisted of Evelyn Pollock, paired with Chad A. Johnson.

I am reversing the order that I am posting the reviews from how I experienced them. Much of my discussion will be in the second of the posted reviews – regarding the beautiful physical production, the stage direction, costumes, conducting, and  the performances of some of the principals who performed their roles with both pairs of lovers.  In this review, I will concentrate on the performances of Pollock and Johnson, and on the Act II ballet, but I will devote much of this review to the story itself.

By posting my review of the February 28 cast, before that of the February 27 cast, I am not intending to sleight the excellent performances of the other pair. However,  the visual impression that the Pollock-Johnson team made on me was revelatory.  It helped me to decide what the story is really about.

I, of course, know that it is treacherous to have expectations of how the artist assaying a particular opera role should “look”. For operatic roles it is usually hard enough to find someone who can sing the part well, much less conform to my idea or anyone else’s as to what the artist should look like.

[Below: Lakme (Evelyn Pollock) descends the stairs from her temple; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

Those who have read my past comments on “Lakme” know that I have expressed some concern about the plot (See  Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008). Particularly, I have been puzzled by the mysterious motivations of Gerald, who in the opera has relationships with two women, each to whom he professes love and commitment – sentiments that seem to change in an instant.

The opera is crammed from beginning to end with infectious melody, and has two very famous numbers with whom much of the audience will be familiar,  But to work for 21st century audiences, it seemed like there needs to be an explanation of the motivations – or as we in this time of ABC television’s “Lost” refer to it –  the backstories that help explain what happens in this opera.

Reflections on Lakme and Gerald

Both Pollock and Johnson are early in what promises to be important careers, but already have substantial experience through apprenticeship programs at major opera companies, as well as a considerable list of leading roles in regional companies. Pollock is an Illinois native, an alumna of the apprentice programs at San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe Opera, and is now closely associated with the opera company of St Gallen, Switzerland, where she performs many lead coloratura roles.

She displayed both the secure legato required for most of the opera and the coloratura skills to make the second act showpiece, the “Bell Song”, memorable. But, for purposes of the argument I am making, she also was physically believable playing a young, adolescent girl.

Even more so, Johnson, a Michigan tenor who has been associated with major opera companies since 2001 (he was in the apprentice artists programs in Chicago, Santa Fe and Miami) and has sung Gerald in the 2006 performances of the Minnesota Opera, still retains a youthful appearance. In fact, from my eighth row orchestra seat, he looked like he could pass for an Eagle Scout in a Nebraska boy scout troop. (This is a not a pejorative comment. I have high regard for both Eagle Scouts and the State of Nebraska.)

Pollock and Johnson provided the visual clues that resolved the plot mysteries for me. The opera’s story makes sense if you consider that Gerald is an adolescent, not much more than 17, sexually inexperienced and in a chaste relationship (probably not of his choosing) with his Victorian fiancee, Miss Ellen. The rest of the story falls into place if you add in information about Lakme provided by the opera’s librettists. Lakme also is a sexually inexperienced adolescent.

“Lakme” to borrow a phrase sometimes used by Hollywood film promotion offices, is a drama about sexual awakening. The opera’s story line works if you consider Gerald as wracked with sexual desire, but inhibited by the Victorian attitudes of his fiancee, not to mention her ever-present, ultra-inhibiting governess and chaperone, Mrs Bentson. Lakme, not herself from a Victorian culture (although, during that time, India was the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown) had a societal role as priestess that prevented her from exploring her sexuality.

As soon as the British brigands in Gerald’s party of five break and enter the sacred temple of Lakme and her father Nilakantha, there is increasing evidence that Gerald is ready to be sexually awakened. So, what some might think is a daffy decision by Gerald to stay behind to sketch the jewels that Lakme had taken off while she and Mallika harvest some jasmine, is rather obviously – even in this pre-Freudian time – an excuse to be alone with his sexual fantasies in this intensely romantic setting.

[Below: Gerald (Chad A. Johnson) fantasizes meeting the woman whose exotic jewels he and his companions came across; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

Lakme returns from jasmine-gathering. This permits Gerald to be a voyeur, learning that Lakme, like himself, is repressing intense sexual desires. Unlike the voyeur Faust’s observation of  Marguerite’s revelation of her desires in Gounod’s “Faust”, Gerald and Lakme do not require the manipulation of Satan to put things into motion.

As I have noted previously, when Lakme and Gerald first gaze on each other, each is the most exotic being the other has ever seen. Both are aware that they exist in environments that are in pitched battle with each other – she, after all, is the daughter of the leader of the anti-British underground and he is a British soldier occupying Lakme’s homeland. Adolescent hormones – as Romeo and Juliet confirmed centuries before – can transcend all practical assessments of the situation in which they find themselves.

There is little doubt to what all of this would have led, had not Nilakantha arrived and Lakme, for his protection, chased Gerald away. Gerald’s return to the British compound resets his priorities and he is back with Miss Ellen, the sour Mrs Bentson, and his comrade in arms Frederic. The vision and exchange with Lakme may or may not have had a lasting effect on him (think of Nadir and Zurga and their long-lived mutual infatuation with the image of Leila in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”), but for the moment he seems in tow, and nothing in his behavior would alarm Miss Ellen or Mrs Bentson. That will change when the Brits go sightseeing in the Hindu marketplace.

[Below: Mrs Bentson (Dorothy Byrne), to her displeasure,  finds herself in the middle of a Hindu marketplace; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

“Lakme” as a French opera of the Belle Epoque period has the mandatory ballet. Delibes is the master of classical French dance music, both as part of opera and as full length ballets. Inclusion of the “Lakme” ballet reinforces the exoticism of the opera’s amazing second act, and treats audiences to some beautiful orchestral music.

Obviously, if companies had to engage a full ballet cast, that likely would make the cost of mounting the opera prohibitive. This production retains the ballet within a reasonable budget by having a single male and female dancer (Eric Midgely and Gina Patterson) performing the ballet. It works fine, at one point incorporating a traditional Hindu dance costume that helps underscore the cultural differences between the British colonialists and the native Hindus.

[Below: Dancer Eric Midgley, as part of the “Lakme” Act II ballet, dons a traditional Hindu dancer’s costume; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

But for all the cross-cultural tension and local color, the second act is about Lakme and Gerald resuming their relationship. Early in the act, Gerald has calmed himself down and is back with Ellen. I think that as they stroll through the marketplace, he already has begun to regret that he is tied to her. But a brief infatuation, never reinforced, would not have changed the course of his life. But his life is soon knocked off course by Lakme’s father, Nilakantha.

[Below: Gerald (Chad A. Johnson), infatuated with Lakme, is reminded that he is engaged to be married to Miss Ellen (Katrina Thurman ); edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

But, as far as Nilakantha is concerned, he has committed a sacrilege that must be avenged with his death, and he uses Lakme (who, in disguise and under duress, sings one of the very greatest of French coloratura arias) to ensnare Gerald. Pollock performed the Bell Song with great skill. Eventually, as Nilakantha hopes, Gerald recognizes Lakme and thereby identifies himself to her father and her father’s henchmen which British soldier it was who broke the temple’s tabu.

I believe that it is the love duet between Lakme and Gerald in the second act, after Gerald has had a chance to spend time back with his British fiancee and friends, in which he knows in his head that he is no longer the same person and that his destiny is somehow with Lakme.

[Below: Gerald (Chad A. Johnson) is once more with Lakme (Evelyn Pollock), moments before her father, intending to murder him, wounds him instead; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]

However, Nilakantha unintentionally confirms his destiny by wounding, but failing to kill, him. Left for dead, Lakme and her two servants gather up the wounded Gerald and take him to the third act hideway known only to them.

The “Lakme” third act is one that I find I like more every time I see or hear it performed. Obviously, I think it needs explanation. This is where the backstory really matters. If we think of Gerald as a mature, sophisticated man of the world, he comes off as scatterbrained or weak-willed, first agreeing to stay with Lakme, then being persuaded to return to his regiment, then changing his mind again to enter into a solemn ceremony with his dying love.

But think of him as an adolescent, who has subconsciously made a decision that he has not yet accepted in his own mind. His subsconscious knows that he is going to “go native” – succumb to the sensual elements of Lakme and her environment, whether with the permission of his British military authorities or without it.  He has not consciously decided this yet, or he would not have agreed with Frederic’s plea to be present at the muster for his departing regiment, but that is why he does not respond to Frederic’s reminder that his fiancee is waiting for him.

Then, what some see as another plot weakness makes sense instead. Because Lakme, returning with the vessel of liquid from a sanctified spring, detects his ambivalence about staying with her, she consumes the datura flower that she knows will kill her. Then, in a searing moment, Gerald commits his eternal life to hers, and they both drink from the ivory cup. Lakme, dying, reconciles her father and her eternal husband. Note that both Lakme and Gerald at this moment could wear purity bracelets. Neither has consummated a loving relationship.

I had asked in a previous essay on this opera, what happens after the final curtain. Does Gerald go back to Britain with Miss Ellen? I am sure now that answer is no. Does he even return to his regiment? I’m not sure even that happens, and since he is the Governor’s daughter’s ex-fiancee, the British discouragement of its officers and men “going native” would likely make his career in the British colonial army very difficult.

I think Gerald is accepted by Lakme’s family and community. He will have a Hindu spouse, but all will know that he is widower of the divine Lakme and will spend eternity with her.

As to this performance, as noted above, Pollock deserves recognition as one of the current group of singers who has mastered the difficult title role of the opera. Johnson is a leggiero tenor, and his voice is exactly the right timbre for the part of Gerald. Florida Grand Opera (which had performed the opera once before over 40 seasons ago) has helped this once popular French work on its road back into the public’s heart.