Composer: Leo Delibes
Director/Set Designer: Brendan Wheatley
Conductor: John Beswick
Costume Designer: Gabriella Ingram
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Leo Delibes’ 1883 opera Lakme soon took its place in the standard repertoire. However, recent decades have been less welcoming to it. Its problem is that it belongs to two genres that are not especially in favour these days. One of a series of French and Italian operas that draw on oriental exoticism, usually with fatal results for the heroine, it has not had the staying power even of the perpetually disappointing Pearl Fishers. Even less promisingly, it is a showcase opera. Apparently created to highlight Marie van Zandt’s coloratura soprano, it tends to appear only as a star vehicle.
All this leads to an interesting question of whether it was a wise choice for Swansea City Opera. With limited funding, Swansea City Opera somehow manages to tour to 18 venues, many of them small and opera-starved, with a sizeable cast and cunning orchestral reduction. Lakme’s very rarity, a once popular opera now seldom seen, makes this a noble undertaking, but on the other hand, it is quite clear why it is seldom seen: it is dramatically inert and its attractive music has too little dynamic variation to excite.
The plot is simple to a fault. Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest, hates the British Raj for its opposition to his religion. His daughter Lakme, whom he treats almost as a goddess, accidentally comes across a British officer, Gerald, who is left over from a picnic. Inevitably they fall in love. Nilakantha plots Gerald’s death, but only wounds him. Lakme nurses him to health, but his brother officer, Frederic, reminds him of his duty to the Empire. Lakme realises she has lost him and commits suicide. And, give or take the odd bazaar or festival, that’s about it.
Possibly, to do justice to Lakme, a more lavish production and full orchestration are needed, but Swansea City Opera at least provides first-class vocal performances in the three key parts. Madalina Barbu’s voice may sound a touch pinched in her middle register, but her bell-like upper register is what really counts in this part. Two set pieces from Lakme have remained popular and Barbu gives full value to the Bell Song and (with Katarzyna Balejko’s Mallika) the Flower Duet.
Barbu’s characterisation is a bit pallid, but Luke Sinclair’s Gerald is splendidly forthright dramatically as well as vocally. Hakan Vramsmo is an impressively sonorous Nilakantha, shaping his legato lines beautifully, bringing dignity to the part, but needing a touch more menace.
The remainder of the cast of 12 offer well-judged singing and safety-first characterisation (one over-the-top embarrassment excluded). Mark Saberton’s Frederic seems most at ease in the part and also gets across more than most of Bridgett Gill’s new English translation. The one-night-only chorus from Harrogate, Cadenza, was excellent, both vocally and in filling out prayer meeting and bazaar with well-disciplined movement.
Colourful costumes compensate for unimaginative sets; Brendan Wheatley’s production copes soundly with the problems of a touring show with a chorus in every town; John Beswick keeps it all together and gets fine playing from his eight-piece orchestra, though sometimes his choice of tempos invites monotony.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed