Lively choreography, committed performances, sensitive conducting, great costumes: Opera Holland Park's new production of Delibes' Lakmé has everything going for it. Except the opera itself.
Perhaps it's personal taste - I didn't much take to Massenet's Thaïs a couple of weeks ago, either, and the style and subject matter are not dissimilar - but I found myself immune to the supposed charms of most of the score. And although the subject matter is potentially a fascinating subject for an opera, the story is awfully dull and crammed with the drippiest characters imaginable.
Gérald, a British Army Officer in India at the time of the British Raj, falls in love with Lakmé, the beautiful and mysterious priestess daughter of Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest. When Nilakantha stabs Gérald, Lakmé and her servant Hadji carry him to the forest and Lakmé nurses him back to health. But Gérald's friend Frédéric comes to advise him to drop his infatuation and return to his fiancée Ellen. Lakmé sees the change in him and eats the poisonous datura flower. As the opera comes to an end, Nilakantha 'rejoices that his beloved daughter is with the gods in heaven'. Not a nice chap.
Most famous for the duettino 'Sous le dôme épais' - better known as the 'Flower Duet' that used to accompany the British Airways advertisement on television - the orchestration of Lakmé is atmospheric enough, but overall the score lacks body. As is often the case in French opera of the period, the harmonic language is utterly insipid. Several bars can go by without the chord changing at all, while the melodies too often simply stick to the notes of the tonic chord without elaborating any further. Delibes' idea of the exotic is usually an isolated augmented or diminished chord, the most clichéd gesture in the book. Without a doubt there are some excellent individual numbers that are more than worth hearing: the Act I quintet and love duet are both constructed with taut voice leading and the opening scene with the ballet music in Act II is by far the most inspiring stretch (it's no coincidence that Delibes' most enduring scores are for full-length ballets). But I find the construction of Act III extremely weak, a prolonged series of scenes leading to the heroine's inevitable death that in no way matches Verdi's achievement in La traviata (which returns to Holland Park in a couple of weeks). The brief appearance of the 'Flower Duet' notwithstanding, there's nothing very memorable in the work.
The company has fielded a talented and dedicated cast for the production, with some reservations. Allison Bell has the perfect bright voice for the title role, and she acts the slightly bizarre character with utter conviction. But sadly she was out of tune for a huge proportion of the performance, ending the famous 'Bell Song' roughly two tones lower than she started it, for instance. Nevertheless, she does project well and shows genuine passion for Gérald, here played by Philip O'Brien. Again, there was great commitment here, but I found O'Brien's voice underpowered and not sufficiently lavish in tone for this lyrical role.
Graeme Broadbent was a solid if two-dimensional Nilakantha (though the libretto gives him little to work with), while the superb Grant Doyle (a former Young Artist at the Royal Opera) really stepped up to the mark with his beautifully-sung Frédéric. Anne Collins was memorable in the character role of Miss Bentson, the governess, and Pamela Hay showed much promise in her sweet-voiced Ellen. Antonia Sotgiu was a sympathetic Mallika - the servant who sings the lower part of the 'Flower Duet' - and all the smaller roles were competently taken.
The City of London Sinfonia was one of the glories of the evening, playing with all the sensuality they could muster under Noel Davies. The latter's conducting was hugely impressive, always ensuring that the voices could be heard even in the most orchestrally sumptuous passages. Tom Hawkes has done an excellent job of evoking the Indian settings with designer Peter Rice, while Jenny Weston's Bollywood-infused choreography was impressive, considering the limited amount of stage space.
Fans of French opera will probably be overjoyed by the experience, but for me, Lakmé is no masterpiece.