Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Lakmé review – Chelsea Opera Group thrill a packed Cadogan Hall 

25 February 2024

An evening that made a strong case for more performances of the opera.


Lakmé (Photo: Sam Smith)

Lakmé may be a contender for the most famous opera still to be rarely performed! There seem to have been only two professional productions in London in the past 20 years and both were at Opera Holland Park, in 2007 and 2015 respectively. One reason why it enjoys so few outings may be that the plot, which possesses elements of both Les Pêcheurs de perles and Madama Butterfly, is problematic for modern audiences to say the least.

Set in late 19th century India, it sees the British officer Gérald become infatuated with Lakmé, the daughter of the Brahmin priest Nilakantha. This happens after he trespasses on sacred ground simply for adventure, thus revealing his own sense of superiority and lack of respect. After initially being frightened, however, Lakmé reciprocates his love and their intention is to stay together forever. Gérald survives a stabbing from a furious Nilakantha, after which Lakmé nurses him back to health, but he is then reminded of his duty to his regiment. Lakmé senses the consequent change in Gérald and, realising she has lost him, decides to die with honour by eating the poisonous datura leaf. 

Besides presenting a 19th century ‘Western’ view of India, Lakmé could be viewed as problematic because, although it does not entirely condone Gérald’s conduct, it does not clearly condemn it either. While it is obvious in Madama Butterfly that we should judge Pinkerton’s behaviour, it does not feel as if Gérald’s attitudes in seeing Lakmé as an ‘exotic novelty’ are being exposed in quite the same way. All this said, musicologist Bruno Bower suggests that even in France in 1883 when the opera premiered, the story was uncomfortable, if only because it saw a Westerner lose control of himself, and hence of a situation in which he ‘should’ be in command. Pierre Loti’s Le Mariage de Loti of 1880, an autobiographical novel on which the story is partially based, set the action in Tahiti with a French officer. Bower believes that Delibes and his librettists Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille chose to make the Westerners British to avoid putting the very people who would have been watching the opera under the spotlight. 

Bower feels that a concert performance goes some way towards overcoming any difficulties associated with the opera. Although it does not alter the libretto, it removes the need to present a staging that risks feeling stereotypically ‘exotic’. This potentially creates another problem, however, as Bower also believes there is an extent to which the score, like much ballet music prior to Tchaikovsky, is designed to support movement and action as opposed to shining in its own right. 

Lakmé may be a contender for the most famous opera still to be rarely performed!”

If, as a result, there was a risk of the music coming across as mellow and insufficiently charged, it was not one that materialised upon hearing the orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group, under the baton of Matthew Scott Rogers. One could picture how in certain circumstances it might feel lacklustre, but such was the prowess of the performance that the night felt as emotional as any that might be had at the opera.

If the soloists’ presentation style was shaped by this being a concert performance, it proved to be particularly effective. In the title role stood Haegee Lee, whose coloratura in ‘L’Air des clochettes’ (The Bell Song) was a wonder to hear, and who overall offered a sound that felt extremely clean. In reality, it was possessed of a vast array of colours and nuances, but because it was underscored by such strong technique, the listener was left simply feeling its purity. While Lee’s acting revealed how involved she was, she did not indulge in the type of histrionics that would have made her performance feel overblown. The degree of understatement she maintained made her performance moving because it enabled us to see Lakmé as a real person, rather than an ‘exotic’ stereotype. 

As Lakmé’s servant Mallika, Polly Leech revealed a rich mezzo-soprano that complemented Lee’s voice extremely well in ‘Sous le dôme épais’ (The Flower Duet). James Platt as Nilakantha displayed an immensely strong and secure bass-baritone that spoke of the character’s serious nature in every way, while Magnus Walker provided excellent support as Nilakantha’s servant Hadji. 

The Indian characters stood to one side of the conductor’s podium, and the British characters to the other. This meant that when the latter first appeared the five people could generate a strong dynamic. Sarah Pring and Caroline Carragher were class acts as Mistress Bentson and Miss Rose respectively, but it was Lorena Paz Nieto as Gérald’s fiancée Miss Ellen who stood out for the sheer extent to which she always remained in character.

As Gérald, Elgan Llŷr Thomas revealed a warm lower and striking upper register, alongside a relatively naive persona. This did not excuse his behaviour as one suspected his naivety resulted from him never thinking, which in turn derived from his sense of superiority, but it was enough to prevent Gérald from feeling like a caricature himself. As his fellow officer Frédéric, Julien Van Mellaerts was in very fine voice, as was the chorus under its director Lindsay Bramley. It shone particularly at the start of Act II, when it effectively captured the hustle and bustle of a busy market place with three chorus members, David Padua, John Vallance and Kevin Hollands, portraying the characters to be found there. In what are difficult times for the arts it was heartwarming to see Cadogan Hall packed out, and the audience was rewarded with a performance that will live long in the memory.

• For details of all the Chelsea Opera Group’s events in 2024, which include performances of I due Foscari on 9 June and Puccini’s Capriccio sinfonico, Messa di Gloria and Le Villi on 2 November, visit its website.

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Lakmé review – Chelsea Opera Group thrill a packed Cadogan Hall