Hurrah for Chelsea Opera group, performing another rarely heard piece for the benefit of opera lovers. It’s not often that I will wax lyrical about being in London but as with Opera Rara and many other smaller companies that perform in the city, we really do get spoilt here.
The opera was first performed in April 1877 at the then recently opened Palais Garnier and ran for a total of 57 performances between 1877 and 1879. Take that contemporary composers, who produce work that we have to decently tolerate for six to ten performance before they are thankfully forgotten about – even if they originally receive obsequious praise from those too afraid of seeming foolish by stating the operas are awfully dreary. With its sensual orientalism and opulent staging, costumes alone costing 200,000 francs, sums that current opera houses can only dream of, Le Roi de Lahore was Massenet’s first major success. It went on to be performed in Turin within a year and other cities in Italy after that. The first Sitâ was Joséphine de Reszke, who would go on to sing in the premiere of Herodiade in 1881. Alim and Scindia were taken by Marius Salomon and Jean Lassalle respectively, both also singing in the premiere of Gounod’s Polyeucte in the 1878 season.
To be fair, the opera contains enough plot for several operas with stock characters such as the thundering bass High Priest and a baritone and tenor both in love with the same soprano. Scindia is in love with the Priestess Sitâ but when rebuffed by the aforementioned High Priest, he starts stamping his feet, accusing Sitâ of already having another lover, who turns out to be the king. As penance, the king has to lead the army out against an invading army of Muslims, in which battle the king dies and Sitâ is left heartbroken. Tenor is dead, curtain falls, one expects fin. However, in a plot more crackpot that even Maria de Rudenz, we then have an act set in Heaven, where the god Indra comes across Alim suffering with severe lovelorn angst, sends him back to earth to win his heart’s desire – the lovers end up dead but at least ascend to heaven together.
Accompanying this overblown plot is a typically well-orchestrated score from Massenet, with grand fanfares, delicate prayers and a perfectly respectable ballet sequence, though it’s about as authentically Indian as a supermarket microwaveable beef curry.
The orchestra launched with force into the dramatic if bombastic overture, which used melodies to be heard throughout the rest of the opera, particularly the brass dominated martial theme which would return for the opening of Act 2. Under the baton of Renato Balsadonna, Chelsea Opera Group pulled out all the stops to provide a full orchestra, complete with multiple percussion players, cornets and full complement of strings meaning that the sound was full whilst the punchy brass section played with gusto. I was surprised to see a cimbasso being played instead of the tuba specified in the score and there were many moments where the orchestra sounded just too Italianate, almost as if the opera were by Ponchielli or Puccini rather than Massenet. This was particularly noticeable in the delightful opening movement of the ballet section in Act 3, with its sinuous saxophone parts, played by John Cook and Susan Moss, and overarching melodies reminiscent of the waltz theme in the overture to Les cloches de Corneville, which incidentally premiered at the Théâtre des Folles-Dramatique just eight days before Massenet’s opera opened. At times, the rhythm was a little too clipped, a Viennese rather than French waltz, with the strings not quite filigree enough to take in the delicacy of the accompaniment. If this waltz sounded familiar to some, it was perhaps because it was used in the MacMillan ballet version of Manon. There were minor infelicities, such as the occasionally heavy handed tambourine playing in a female chorus that took syncopation to a level that verged on just being incorrect but the playing overall was accomplished and full of vigour.
The chorus sang with mixed results. In some of the ceremonial sections with massed crowds, their volume and enthusiasm was overwhelming but there were many occasions where they wandered down to inaudibility, particularly the male chorus during Act 2. Perversely, at the other end of the scale, the male chorus seem to have one member of the tenor section determined to be heard over everybody else and not for the first time in one of these concerts. The chorus tended towards heavy-footedness in Act 3, set in heaven, though one could hear the amused sniggers from the audience as the chorus sang ‘Voici des Paradis!’, rather unfortunately translated as ‘This is Heaven’ on the surtitles, rather than the more poetic ‘Behold Heaven’ given in the libretto. Thankfully composure was maintained during their rousing rendition of the finale as they proclaimed that Alim would live and return to the mortal world.
As High Priest Timour, Jihoon Kim projected his voice clearly from the back of the auditorium during the Act 1 introduction and in the thickly orchestrated ensembles he was clearly heard. His voice is not yet fully matured but there is much to look forward to from this young singer. Though perhaps currently too young to be convincing as the older man, his voice still having a youthful freshness, there is a lot of potential for him taking on larger parts in Verdi in years to come.
William Dazeley, who has previously sung with Chelsea Opera Group in Foroni’s Christina, regina di Svezia, is another Italianate singer, who brought a sympathetic characterisation to the villain role of Scindia. His voice blended well with Kim in the opening duet of ‘Prêtre, je viens chercher la vierge’ (good luck finding one of them in London) and his anguish was well conveyed as he pleaded with Sitâ to accept his love. He used a lighter voice than might have been expected of the character which made the switch from fervent lover to terrified usurper all the more interesting in his Act 4 arioso.
In the travesti role of Kaled, Justina Gringyte seemed to invoke the spirit of Carmen with a fine, rounded French sound in her Act 2 romance ‘Ferme les yeux’. This was a small part with only contributions in the Act 1 finale and parts of Act 2 before disappearing from the story like Lear’s fool but Gringyte made the most of the opportunities presented.
Joshua Bloom was originally billed as only taking a small role as a chieftain but due to unforeseen circumstances was drafted in to sing the role of Indra. We were fortunate that he did and did so very well, with a clear tone that was a pleasure to have heard more than originally expected. One could almost imagine him taking on the role of Emperor Phorcas in Esclarmonde and I look forward to his performances as the Pirate King in ENO’s Pirates of Penzance later this season.
I’m happy to report that despite the fairly negative view of Anush Hovhannisyan that I formed during her performance in La scala di seta at the Linbury studio during October, here as Sitâ she felt much more comfortable. Her voice is well suited to the (admittedly enjoyable) excesses of romanticism and she will do well in this repertoire, she will become a fine Puccini singer. If her upper register was occasionally strained and a tad dry, she displayed an almost Sutherland-esque lower register. She had a croaky start to the evening and was a little over reliant on whooping up to higher notes but her duet with Kaled ‘C’est le soir’ was charmingly sung with a finely tuned, warmly melded coalescence of their voices. After a lugubrious entr’acte, finely played by the orchestra, in Act 5, her rendition of the recitative and aria did lead to some more whooping towards the top but it was well executed.
After thrilling the audience with his interpolated top notes in last year’s Les Martyrs, it was good to hear Michael Spyres using his well-placed mid-register voice. After a confident entry at ‘Non! Sitâ m’appartient’, he nonchalantly took over proceedings, making the role seem like a walk in the park. If the extreme of his voice makes him look strained that’s a good thing otherwise the rest of us mere mortals are going to feel inadequate. With a voice reminiscent of Giacomo Aragall in places, Spyres successfully continues to make headway into 19th Century French repertoire. He displays an ease of performing, with a not unpleasant reedy tone (to qualify this statement, the saxophone is reed instrument: reedy isn’t always bad). Pronunciation was occasionally wayward with ‘Scindia’ being pronounced almost like ‘Signor’ but such minor points were inconsequential when carried away with the ecstatic final duet for the lovers as they embraced their fate and ascension into heaven. All in all it was a fantastic evening – another resounding success for Chelsea Opera Group.