The evening started with one of those unwelcome announcements – in this case James Clutton informed us that their Lakmé, Fflur Wynn, was suffering from a severe indisposition and that, though she was determined to continue, might have to bow out during the evening. While I recognise the necessity of this information being given to the audience it has the negative effect of putting one on the edge of one’s seat right from the start. As it turned out, the announcement proved unnecessary and Miss Wynn completed the performance without recourse to understudies or halts. I also doubt that anyone except the most knowledgeable listeners would have detected anything amiss with her performance.
Lakmé is a very specific example of exotic French opera calling for a trio of very strong principals but also a largish cast of supporting principals, most of whom get their chance to shine in the spotlight. There are strong elements of dance and many exciting opportunities for the large chorus, whether as devout (and later vengeful) acolytes or over-insistent market traders. All of these elements are allied to music which, despite the odd layer of exotic instrumentation, remains as French as a bouillabaisse and as authentically Indian as currywurst!
The work is certainly not a 5 star masterpiece but there are many very fine passages and it certainly deserves to be better known in this country than for merely a duet purloined by our national airline or a near impossible coloratura warhorse. That being said, there were several moments when attention wandered as Delibes built to a climax only to pull back with a consequent lowering of the emotional temperature. This was particularly the case as the action built towards the attempted assassination of Gérald at the end of Act 2. Park curfews presumably dictated that the first and second acts be run together but it made for a long haul before the single interval.
Some of the early reviews commented unkindly on Aylin Bozok’s simple but elegant production. A wrought iron lotus leaf structure, beautifully lit by Howard Hudson, enclosing a compact golden temple which tellingly evoked the emotional cage which encloses Lakmé is the single setting for the whole opera. The only major scenic change is the replacement of the golden panels in the interval to indicate the lovers’ jungle hideaway. The production played the opera by the book with very few deviations or eccentricities and, to my mind, that is right as the work is unlikely to respond to being transposed to present day Afghanistan or an extremist mosque in Birmingham. There was very little exotic picturesqueness in the costumes either. While I understand the production team’s reluctance to use body paint or dark hair wigs for those singers playing the local population it was a decision which I found unhelpful, especially in the case of Miss Wynn whose naturally blonde hair was the same shade as the two European fiancées which made nonsense of the libretto’s constant references to her contrasting looks. Indeed, the production seemed to go out of its way to avoid any visual references to the disparities between the occupiers and the occupied. Even where the dance element could surely have involved kathak elements it seemed far more redolent of some of the early works of Martha Graham.
The eccentricities alluded to include an attempt to try to establish a connection between Lakmé and the chaperone, Mrs Bentson. I remain mystified by the possible significance and the idea seemed to fizzle out without enlightening us. There was also a fair amount of head clutching type acting, especially from the tenor lead which compromised the essential realistic nature of the production. However, Bozok told the story clearly and never resorted to stereotypes or two dimensionality. The characters were all portrayed with sympathy and understanding, even the fanatic priest/father, Nilakantha, who could so easily descend into a mouth frothing villain.
Matthew Waldren and the City of London Sinfonia played Delibes’ fragrant orchestrations to the manner born. Occasionally I could have wished them to let rip a bit more and certain sections could have been driven harder. But in the main this was a fine account of the score.
OHP fielded a strong trio of principals led by Fflur Wynn’s lovely Lakmé. Wynn is closer in voice to the lighter end of the spectrum – certainly more Dessay than Sutherland. But her voice is immensely attractive and she has the full measure of the part despite the aforementioned indisposition. Of the numerous excursions above the stave only the E flat at the climax of the Bell Song sounded nervous. She looks beautiful onstage and fully commanded our sympathy at the end, despite Delibes’ rather hurried build up to her suicide. I hope to return later in the run to hear her again.
I associate Robert Murray more with the Britten/Mozart repertoire than French opera. Like many roles of this Fach the role lies high but Murray seemed unfazed by the range or tessitura and, while in the first two acts he occasionally seemed to be holding back, his voice opened out in thrilling style in the final scenes. This is the best singing I have heard from him and I trust he will explore other French roles. He created a sympathetic character even when he wavers in his devotion to Lakmé, causing her despair and suicide.
Frederick Long made much of the potentially unsympathetic Nilakantha. We see that his murderous intentions are motivated as much by fear for his daughter as religious fanaticism. He voiced the part in rounded, beautiful tones. There were moments when he could afford to up the level of vocal cut especially when rising over the chorus. But this is a distinguished performance.
The other outstanding performance came from Nicholas Lester who made much of the role of Frédéric, Gérald’s brother officer. Lester has a really strong baritone voice and he more than once reminded me of that superb French artist, Laurent Naouri. He is also a strong, subtle actor making the most of his stage opportunities. Definitely a singer to watch.
Of the other supporting singers Katie Bray was a strong Mallika whose voice blended well with Wynn’s in the famous Act I duet and Fiona Kimm was an amusingly peppery Mrs Bentson.
To sum up, this is a strong production of an uneven work distinguished by some very strong singing and a sensible, straight production.