Léo Delibes - Lakmé
Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House 2011
Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, Roger Hodgman, Emma Matthews, Dominica Matthews, Roxane Hislop, Jane Parkin, Angela Brun, Aldo Di Toro, Luke Gabbedy, Stephen Bennett, Edmond Choo
Opera Australia Cinema Season, 2012-13
There’s a line in Act III of Delibes’ Lakmé, when British soldier Gérald is being nursed back to health by Lakmé the beautiful daughter of the Brahmin priest who has attempted to kill him, Gérald awakening to the sounds and the vivid beauty of the world around him that has been heightened by his love for Lakmé, which he describes it being like a caress passing over you. In that phrase you have a summation of everything that Delibes achieves through the lushness of the scoring for the opera, the brilliance and enchantment of the melody and the sheer enveloping beauty and romanticism with which it captures the exoticism of its impossible love story between two people of very different cultures that goes against the prevailing attitudes in an India under British rule in the 1800s.
Léo Delibes is better known now for his ballets than his opera work, with Coppélia and Sylvia still frequently performed as repertory standards, but although Delibes achieved considerable success with his opera compositions, mainly in the operetta and opéra comique style, which show the influence of Bizet and Meyerbeer, but they are regarded as being old-fashioned and very much of their time and few are ever revived. Only Lakmé (1883) has made an enduring impression, principally on account of the exquisite ‘Flower Song’ duet for sopranos (which frequently turns up in television advertisements, most notably some years ago for British Airways), and for the challenging showpiece ‘Bell Aria’ which allows a coloratura soprano to demonstrate her virtuosity, but even Lakmé is rarely performed in its entirety as a opera. I’m not sure if that’s because the work is now considered old-fashioned, or because it has other singing and acting challenges beyond those famous arias that demand a soprano of extraordinarily high quality, but thankfully Opera Australia had the astonishing Emma Matthews on hand for this revival of their exquisite 2006 production for the Sydney Opera House that reveals the full beauty of the work.
Lakmé is an example of a European and a particularly French interest in Orientalism around the latter half of the 19th century that sparked the imagination of many writers, artists and composers. In the opera world, it is most clearly evident in Bizet’s The Pearlfishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) (1867) and Verdi’s Aida (1871) - echoes of both can perhaps be heard in Lakmé’s oriental themes - and the opera is derived from a popular book from this period ‘Le Marriage de Loti’ by Pierre Loti (a pseudonym for Julien Viaud, a captain in the French navy), the setting changed from Tahiti in the book to India in the mid-1800s. The influence of Orientalism and the lure of the exotic however extends well into the beginning of the 20th century, and the bold colours, lush idealised imagery of Mark Thompson’s set designs for the Indian jungles and temples of this Opera Australia production of Lakmé strongly evoke the paintings of Henri Rousseau, finding in them the perfect expression of Delibes’ gorgeous melodies and romantic situations.
In this respect, certainly in the lushness of melody and its exotic romantic sweep, one might also detect something turn-of-the-century Orientalism of Puccini’s Turandot, and particularly note the similarities that Lakmé’s clash of cultures romance story has with Madama Butterfly. Lakmé similarly depicts a romance that blossoms between a western military officer, Gérald and a young exotic beauty, Lakmé, the daughter of Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest. The taboo romance here also meets with stern disapproval from the young woman’s family, and it likewise proves to be unsustainable when the exotic lure of the situation that has gripped the soldier gives way to the sense of duty that he has momentarily forgotten. Puccini may indeed have been responding entirely in his own way to the situation as it is depicted in George Belasco’s play, and I’ve never seen any references about whether he may have regarded Lakmé as a model or not, but Puccini’s musical approach is similar in how it captures that irresistible lure of the exotic, and the conclusion is similarly tragic for the innocent Eastern native whose purity of feeling is unable to coexist with the rather different notions of love, duty and tradition from the western perspective. Quite why Lakmé isn’t as popular as Madama Butterfly then is something of a mystery.
Perhaps however Lakmé just hasn’t been treated as well in the past as it is here by Opera Australia. In every respect this is a wonderful production that trusts that the opera is strong enough to work on its own terms, in a traditional period staging, without needing any clever concepts to make it accessible to a modern audience. Everything however is put into the costumes, the sets, the colour and the warm lighting with its subtle shading, to ensure that it matches and supports the work as it is expressed in the libretto and the music score. It’s also sung and acted with complete conviction by an exceptionally strong cast. Emma Matthews is most impressive in the hugely demanding singing role of Lakmé, the singing performance flawlessly delivered. Her ‘Flower Song’ duet with Dominica Matthews’ Mallika is perfect, and her handling of the coloratura throughout is exemplary, but it’s a performance that works on much more than a purely technical level with a brightness and warmth of tone in her delivery that matches her character’s temperament and purity. Gérald is also very well performed by Aldo Di Toro, but it’s even better that there seems to be genuine chemistry between the performers and a harmony of voices that, when caught up in the sweep of the melodies and the beauty of the stage setting, makes it their story all the more involving and believable.
Lakmé was viewed in the cinema as part of Opera Australia Cinema Season 2012/13 programme, but this recording is also available on DVD and in High Definition on Blu-ray disc.