Watching Delibes’ Lakmé is a bit like seeing someone being beaten to death with a feather. All the ingredients of operatic tragedy are there but delivered with the utmost gentleness and grace. In Opera Holland Park’s elegant production, Allison Bell gives an excellent performance in the title role and joins a growing line of young singers who have made their mark with this company.
Lakme was first produced at the Opera Comique, Paris in 1883. Think Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers with dashes of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Saint-Saens’ Samson and Dalila; all these composers, like many artists of their time, came under the spell of the exotic east and its inherent dangers. In Lakme a militant cleric stirs up hatred amongst his followers towards the occupying British Army but, in this potentially incendiary and ever so slightly familiar situation, soft breezes blow, water flows melodiously and one can sit around feeling sad at the sound of a dove. Delibes’ India is also a land where death lies in a flower.
A young British soldier, part of an imperialist invading force, enters the forbidden fiefdom of a Brahmin priest, sees the latter’s daughter and falls for her unobtainable beauty and charm. Before he’s even set eyes on her, in a slightly pervy scene, he summons up an imagined image of her by fingering her jewellery. There’s something of Puccini’s Pinkerton in his longing for her mysterious exoticism and he too at the end is quite ready to leave the object of his desire and answer the call of his soldierly duty, only to be stopped in his tracks by her suicide.
Delibes’ opera is seldom performed nowadays, although there’s plenty in the score to enjoy. The most famous tune is of course the justly-celebrated “Flower Song”, known to millions from TV adverts, and the languid loveliness of the duet pervades the work. Even when the military is striking up and we’re told battle is imminent, the tone remains the same and the army is given a tootling little march tune on the flute.
The appropriately-named Allison Bell is perfectly cast as Lakmé, slim and petite and sweet of voice, tackling the tricky coloratura of the almost equally famous “Bell Song” with impressive ease. As her ardent lover Gerald, Philip O’Brien has a light attractive tenor and he’s well-supported by the excellent Grant Doyle as his companion Frederick.
The production is simply designed by Peter Rice, with a series of screens of hanging ropes effectively serving as a backdrop to the various locations. Tom Hawkes‘ direction treads a fine line, managing not to tip over into the amateurish, despite some crowd scenes that threaten it at times. There’s some attractive choreography from Jenny Weston for the extended dance sequences that betray the fact that the composer is now better remembered for his ballets.
The score has its pedestrian sections and Noel Davies‘ conducting of the City of London Sinfonia could do with injecting a little more energy into the sleepier moments, although overall it’s an accomplished performance.
Altogether an enjoyable evening, this is a rare chance to see this delightful piece and worth the trip to Holland Park for Bell’s outstanding performance alone.