Opera Australia’s 2006 co-production of Delibes’ “Lakme” with the Opera de Montreal was imported by the Florida Grand Opera, providing a well-received vehicle for a reigning star of the Florida Grand Opera – coloratura soprano Leah Partridge.
The production, seen in Sydney and Melbourne in 2006 and in Montreal in 2007 is comprised of a truly beautiful unit set that is redressed for the three scenes that constitute the opera’s three acts. The production designer was Australian Mark Thompson. The stage director for the Miami production was Australian legitimate stage director Adam Cook.
It is the first act in which the temple of a Hindu sect hostile to and outlawed by the occupying British sect is the prominent feature. The luxurious temple’s location, adjacent to a stream in which water lilies and jasmine grow, is sacred to the sect.
The blue-roofed temple has golden doors and is flanked by tall statues of Hindu religious figures. Although it dominates the center backstage and is surrounded by a jungle canopy of trees and a garden of abundant flowers, one can see blue sky beyond it.
The stage is framed by rectangular borders. One of these borders is near the stage curtains, others in the distance. A patttern of woven white flowers (that we become aware is the fatal datura) appear on the ominous black background of these border panels.
Thompson designed the costumes as well as the sets. Complementing his production design are lavish Raj period costumes worn by the chorus and dancers, as well as the principals in the East Indian roles. Those costumes appeared in the United States heartland in 2008 when the Tulsa Opera performed “Lakme” with an otherwise different physical production, reviewed on this website.
To assemble the costumes, Thompson’s Australian team worked with agents in India to locate caches of old, even antique, saris, because the contemporary fabrics were deemed not the color nor look that Thompson sought. A single chorister’s costume might have required the material from several saris for its construction.
The temple has the look of solidity that makes the first set most impressive, but surely would require considerable effort (or at least a curtain to obscure it) if it were to be removed for the later two acts. Thompson’s answer to this logistical challenge was simply to leave the temple in place for the second and third acts, even though each act is set in a different location.
For the second act, the garden surrounding the temple disappears, leaving a basically bare stage, except for the temple and the datura stage frames. But the “bare” stage is almost always filled with activity – the bustling Hindu marketplace at the beginning of the act, the dancers enacting the “Lakme” ballet, the episode of the Bell Song, the processional for the Goddess Dourga, the attempted murder of Gerald and his rescue by Lakme and her servants.
For the final act, near the front of the stage, there is located a bamboo structure with Gerald’s sickbed at the top of a wooden staircase, vertically shielding from audience view the Act I temple that remains in place.
Notes on the Performance
Although “Lakme” was performed by Florida Grand Opera 45 years before, the overture, led by Scottish Conductor Stewart Robertson (in his penultimate season as the company’s Music Director) was the first introduction to Delibes’ opera for many in the audience. The exotic harmonies of Delibes’ conceptualization of the music of the Raj, mix elegantly with Delibes’ Belle Epoque romantic melodies, that inspired another elegant melodist better known to contemporary audiences, Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
The first principal we hear is the Nilakantha, Turkish basso Burak Bilgili (who makes his San Francisco Opera debut in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” on opening night of that company’s 2009-2010 season.) Soon we hear Partridge’s shimmering voice of Lakme, as the temple doors are opened by her servants, Mallika (Amanda Crider) and Hadji (Rene Barbera). Partridge descends the temple steps to lead the assembled chorus in a Hindu prayer.
[Below: Lakme (Leah Partridge) in her first appearance; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]
When Lakme’s father and retinue leave to plan a religious procession in the Hindu marketplace the next day (that we will see in Act II), Lakme and Mallika begin their extended duet (Viens, Mallika).
As a rising mist pours across the stage, the soprano and mezzo blend their voices in what for many is the most familiar music in the opera. Their ensemble, Dome epais le jasmin, is an enchanting barcarolle that the priestess and her personal assistant sing as a turbaned servant poles their flatboat through the water-lilies to find the jasmine they seek.
[Below: Lakme (Leah Partridge) and Mallika (Amanda Crider) sing one of French opera’s most famous duets as they gather jasmine in their boat; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]
The Geopolitical Echoes of “Lakme”
The composer Delibes, a contemporary and associate of Jacques Offenbach, was skilled in the opera-comique style, including the light comic parodies that Offenbach championed.
Delibes’ satirical skill is evident in the opera’s next scene – in which Ugly Brits act disreputably in a foreign world they think they have the right to control. The opera’s five British characters (our hero Gerald, Miss Ellen, Mrs Bentson, Rose and Frederic) vandalize and romp through the sacred temple grounds.
The Brits sing a rousing ensemble (I call it the British Brigands Quintet) that is a tongue-in-cheek satire on British colonial attitudes, constructed by the all- Parisian team of Delibes and two opera comique librettists).
I have discussed the sacriligeous behavior of the British party of five at some length in a previous review (See Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008). It is hard to think of another example in opera where an indictment of another country’s colonial attitudes is so biting.
I suppose an essay would be appropriate that examines the mid-20th century near extinction of performances of “Lakme” and the contemporaneous sensitivity of Britain and France towards satrirical treatments of their stewardship of their colonial empires.
A late 19th century Parisian jab at the cultural insensitivity of the colonial British to the population of Britain’s largest territorial possession should, in itself, cause no concern in France.
But, in the hands of someone who does not have a patriotic affection for the glorious French colonial system, parallels might be drawn between the British struggles in India and the French struggles to keep North Africa, Indochina and elsewhere in line. But maybe it is just a coincidence that performances of “Lakme” were declining as the troubles in Algeria began to take center stage in Paris.
This quintet, like the second act quintet from “Carmen”, the masterpiece of Delibes’ long deceased close friend, Georges Bizet on which it is obviously modeled, is tricky to perform. The five principals who sang it – Bryan Griffin (Gerald), Katrina Thurman (Ellen), Julia Ebner (Rose), Dorothy Byrne (Mrs Bentson) and Aaron St Clair Nicholson (Frederic) deserve special commendation. (It was equally successful the next night, in which Chad A. Johnson replaced Griffin.)
My review of the alternate cast that I saw the subsequent night contains an extensive analysis of the characters of Gerald and Lakme to which I refer the reader (See: Evelyn Pollock, Chad A. Johnson in Revelatory Florida Grand Opera “Lakme” – Miami, February 28, 2009.)
But, as interesting as it is to discover furtive elements in its story line, it is for the music that one goes to “Lakme”. And for those who worry that there is little to interest them between the jasmine-gathering duet near the beginning and the mid-Act II “Bell Song”, there are delights to be experienced.
Griffin’s Gerald offered the first major solo aria of the opera, Prendre le dessin d’un bijou – a solid performance by this leggiero tenor. The return of the boat carrying Lakme and Mallika permits Gerald to overhear Lakme’s great aria of sexual awakening, Les fleurs me paraiisent plus belles, which Partridge sang beautifully.
The song has such a profound effect on Gerald, eavesdropping on her private thoughts, that he risks his life (and he almost loses it in the next act) to appear before her to begin the duet C’est le dieu de la jeunesse. If you are moved by this encounter, then you get French opera, and are ready for a dozen more masterpieces in the French style.
Lakme and Gerald begin what by the end of the opera will be the consummation of a marriage in the Parisian conception of a Hindu afterlife, but to save his life for at least the rest of the first act, she effects his escape as her father, Nilakantha, arrives.
In the Miami performances, the Turkish basso Burak Bilgili is a stylish Nilakantha, leader of the anti-colonialist underground. He blusters that the community must have revenge for a sacrilege by the British marauders.
Yet, Nilikantha’s character highlights another yet another artifice of this opera with an inadvertent (or perhaps, deliberate) political overtone. No matter how exotic the music of the rituals is portrayed, whenever two of the Indian characters talk with each other it is in the French romantic style. The concerns and emotions that Lakme, Hadji, Mallika and Nilakantha all feel are the same as a Parisian would feel. They are just like us.
[Nilakantha (Burak Bilgili) seeks revenge for the British intrusion into their sacred place; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]
I have often remarked that the “Lakme” second act is one of the most interesting in all of French opera. It certainly provides ample opportunities for spectacle, amusement, and melodramatic action to inspire the imaginations of set and costume designers and stage directors.
Director Cook and Designer Thompson did not disappiont. The scene of the Hindu marketplace drew delighted applause from the audience with its bright colors and frantic activity. Stands are filled with textiles, beads, birdcages – all reflecting the bright reds, oranges, yellows and other colors associated with India.
This scene permits another jab at the British privileged classes, showing them strutting around among the hostiles. Bryne’s Mrs Bentson showed that she and Director Cook understand the permission implied by composer and librettists for an artist to play broadly the inherent comedy in this role.
The market closes on schedule and the dancers of the “Lakme” ballet entertain the crowds they attract. Gerald and Frederic appear in the British officer uniforms with their spiked white helmets. Although Gerald appears to be acting normally, Frederic senses that there is the potential for events to spin out of control.
[Below: Frederic (Aaron St Clair Nicholson, left) begins to worry about the involvement of Gerald (Bryan Griffin) with the daughter of the leader of the anti-British insurgency; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]
Frederic takes a walk with Gerald away from the center market area (permitting Bilgili to sing Nilakantha’s great aria Lakme, ton doux regard se voile and Lakme to sing the prelude, two verses, and epilogue of the “Bell Song”).
The performance for Bilgili was masterful, but, in any performance of “Lakme”, it is the extensive showpiece of the “Bell Song” that should be the evening’s most memorable moment.
Partridge showed a phenomenal coloratura technique and superb vocal control, including the seamless legato singing that is required throughout most of the opera. This was more than the fine performance by a local favorite, this was a masterful performance by an artist who deserves the attention of major companies worldwide.
Partridge, who has already attracted a large fan base, by adding this major coloratura role to her repertory, should be the catalyst for other companies to mount this deserving opera.
Even though by now, the Miami audience had gotten its money’s worth in the one and two-thirds acts that it had already seen, there was still much more in the opera to admire. The procession for Dourga provides even more opportunities for the British women to show their disrespect (although Gerald by now has begun to develop some cultural competence), and the end of the act and Act III proved to be rich in musical delights.
[Below: the procession for the Goddess Dourga in the Hindu marketplace; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of Florida Grand Opera.]
The Opera Australia production provides the physical setting for this substantive revival of a work that deserves its rescue from the relative neglect that it suffered in the second half of the 20th century.
The recordings of Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, and later, Natalie Dessay, have been important testaments to the viability of the work. Mountings of the opera by regional companies have impressed many in the audiences that saw and heard the performances.
One problem the opera has had is that there has existed a community of critics, musicologists, and operatic dramaturgs – so certain that the opera is unworthy, even though they had never studied it – that they refused to consider that indeed the opera was much better than they preconceived it to be.
As more audiences see the Opera Australia production and costumes, and hear artists such as Leah Partridge in the title role, the opera’s contemporary supporters will grow.
Epilogue to this review
Hopefully, my comments on the three recent performances and casts that I have heard in the past year and reviewed here, will suggest to some students of opera that they should not regard the prejudices of persons from another century as authoritative assessments that they must follow. Instead, they should perform their own re-evaluations of this absorbing French masterpiece.
I invite readers to e-mail me their own thoughts on “Lakme” or any of the other content on this website.
The e-mail address is [email protected].
Some of the responses will be published in a posting of correspondence section at a later date. William.