Delibes - Lakmé

Opéra Comique, Paris, Tuesday January 14 2014

Conductor: François-Xavier Roth. Production: Lilo Baur. Sets: Caroline Ginet. Costumes: Hanna Sjödin. Lighting: Gilles Gentner. Choreography: Olia Lydaki. Lakmé: Sabine Devieilhe. Gérald: Frédéric Antoun. Mallika: Élodie Méchain. Nilakantha: Paul Gay. Frédéric: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Ellen: Marion Tassou. Rose, Roxane Chalard. Mistress Bentson: Hanna Schaer. Hadji: Antoine Normand. Un Domben: Laurent Deleuil. Un marchand chinois: David Lefort. Le Kouravar: Jean-Christophe Jacques. Dancers: Mai Ishiwata, Olia Lydaki, Anna Dimitratou. Accentus chorus. Les Siècles orchestra.

As for Einstein on the Beach last week, the black market ticket touts were busy outside the Salle Favart before Lakmé, this time presumably because people were eager to hear Sabine Devieilhe in the "British Airways" flower duet and the bell song.

I said not so long ago on Facebook, writing about her Rameau disc, that we'd better all soon learn to spell her name: "Naissance d'une étoile" - a star is born, was the headline of at least one review, and all of them focus on her performance. Her singing is sweet but not saccharine. Every note, however high, is beautiful, every phrase is carefully shaped and she has more vocal body in the medium than you might expect from so slight a figure: her voice is smallish but by no means tiny. Small but perfectly formed, Private Eye might say. Any weakness is in the lower range, which needs some work. One question, as with the Rameau disc, is whether with time and stage experience she will go beyond beautiful singing to develop a more distinctive personality. This remained a question, as the feeble production made no attempt to help her answer it. Another is whether she will be allowed to develop gradually and make sensible choices. Already this coming spring she'll be Queen of the Night at the Bastille, of all places*.

The rest of the cast was near perfect for this piece in this house, though, like Sabine Devieilhe, given no help by the piffling stage direction. "The best of the bunch was Frédéric Antoun. I’ve been told he’s good in Rameau; I wonder if he can handle Rossini’s Lindoro? There was something of the Florez in his timbre last night and he has looks and swashbuckling presence". That was me writing about Grétry's L'Amant Jaloux in 2010. With more support from a better director he would have looked less ill-at-ease and been excellent all round. Paul Gay at his best brought Van Dam to mind but, especially as the evening wore on, was inclined to bark at the top. Bou was Bou - nothing to add to that and nothing in particular to say about the others other than that they were better than you might have expected on seeing the awful production. The "period" orchestra, under Roth, was note-perfect and vibrato-free, but rode roughshod through the score rather than seeking refinement.

In all the hoo-hah about President Hollande's love affairs this week, one "media personality" on live TV, thinking the microphone was off, described him with a cackle as "moche et minable" - ugly and pathetic (the French sounds better of course): a perfect description for this staging of Lakmé. The first set was a long mound of soil with basins of coloured powders and petals, and a black string curtain at the rear. The second, a marketplace, was dominated by a temple with pagoda-like towers made of piles of gleaming pots and pans. The last was a canopy of lianas with a few fairy lights for stars.

The chorus's buff-coloured costumes were a kind of all-purpose-oriental, hinting at any place you care to think of from Morocco to Shanghai, and the two lads were in weird, ill-fitting hotel-doorman or Belgian police uniforms (light grey jackets over dark trousers with a braid stripe) like nothing the British army has ever issued. I did wonder, fleetingly, if there was a "universal relevance" message here, but in such a trivial production it seemed unlikely. A few fairisle jumpers told us we were closer to independence than the date of the work. Mistress Bentson and the girls were dressed as a pantomime dame and the ugly sisters. Positioning and acting were amateurishly conventional and I found myself thinking: if you can have comic opera, then perhaps you can have tragic operetta, as amateur operetta with an unhappy end was what this looked like.

*E.g. "Certes, on craint pour le sort de cette porcelaine légère à la teinte claire dans la « Boutique » éléphantesque de Bastille, pour sa prochaine Reine de la Nuit". Diapason

Maestro Wenarto sings the "Bell Song"


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