`Lakme' strength lies in its score

Visually, production never comes to life

Opera Review

October 08, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There should always be room for operas that don't aspire to the grandest of heights, that are more about sentiment and atmosphere than intellectual or musical depth. Lakme, the only one of nearly 20 operatic pieces by French composer Leo Delibes that ever gets into the fringes of the repertoire on these shores, is a perfect case in point.

To begin with, Lakme boasts a score of unending tunefulness that falls gracefully on the ear, as the Baltimore Opera Company's first-ever production reaffirms. You can hear, on nearly every page of that score, the efforts not just of a master craftsman, but a master charmer.

The plot certainly creaks, yet, given an imaginative staging and scenic design, can yield considerable theatrical interest as it weaves a tale of clashing cultures and doomed love.

You might never guess that, though, from the listlessly directed, dishearteningly provincial-looking production at the Lyric. At least it all sounds lovely. More specifically, it all sounded lovely Sunday afternoon.

(I didn't get to hear Saturday's opener, with a different pair of singers in the romantic leads, having flown back from Japan that day; I'll catch up with those singers tomorrow.)

It was apparent from the first measures of the prelude that the opera was going to be in good hands down in the pit.

Conductor Alberto Veronesi was keenly tuned in to the vivid coloring and rhythmic flow of the music. Throughout the performance, he didn't hesitate to put some real fire into the proceedings, nor did he miss any opportunity to caress a melodic line, letting it have plenty of time to reach its expressive peak. And the orchestra gave him cohesive, admirably detailed playing all afternoon.

Onstage, Luz del Alba Rubio brought considerable vocal skills to the title role of the Brahmin priest's daughter whose heart is unexpectedly awakened by a British officer. Her handling of coloratura passages was usually tidy, always vivid. She delivered the "Bell Song," the opera's chief claim to fame, in silvery tones and telling phrases.

A high note or two in that aria and elsewhere could have used greater solidity; her voice encountered an unfortunate crack at the end of the Act 3 Berceuse; and her French pronunciation wasn't always beyond repute. Otherwise, this was secure, appealing vocalism.

Too bad it wasn't matched by a greater range of acting. The soprano confined herself to some slow-motion, Indian-style hand and arm figurations. There's more to Lakme's character than that.

Marc Heller, due back in June to sing Pinkerton in Baltimore Opera's Madama Butterfly, effectively caught the romantic nature of Gerald, who impetuously crosses the line between colonial power and native culture in pursuit of the entrancing Lakme.

Aside from a voice crack in his Act 1 aria and occasional awkwardness when shifting dynamic levels, the tenor offered a model of elegant, subtle singing, very much in the authentic French tradition.

(This was the only performance for Rubio and Heller during the run; the rest of the cast remains the same throughout.)

Alfredo Zanazzo provided sufficient vocal heft and, in the brief Lakme, ton doux regard se voile, sensitivity of phrasing as Nilakantha, Lakme's father. Not much of an actor, alas.

More persuasive characterizations came in the other supporting roles, notably Daniel Mobbs as the suave-toned Frederic, Gerald's pal. Kathleen Stapleton, as Lakme's servant Mallika, sang warmly, especially in the indelible "Flower Duet" with Rubio. Taylor Hargrave, as the other servant, Hadji, proved reliable.

Madeleine Gray (Miss Benson), Rosemary Rossi (Ellen) and Suzanne S. Chadwick (Rose) livened things up nicely during their brief appearances. The chorus, prepared by James Harp, turned in sturdy, smoothly blended singing.

It was good to hear the original spoken dialogue in Lakme, which sounds more natural than the subsequently added, more commonly used recitatives. That's about the last good thing this production has going for it.

Even an opera company keeping a tight watch on its pocketbook and faced with restricted stage space should be able to come up with something better visually than this static, chintzy, badly lit affair. It might do in 1940, but not today.

If director/designer Roberto Lagana actually had an idea, let alone a full-fledged concept, of how to bring Lakme to life, it escaped me. Trite motions and stiff blocking were the rule.

Particularly unsatisfying were the finales to Acts 2 and 3. In the former, shouldn't Lakme and Hadji have at least tried to look like they were going to help the wounded Gerald? And in the latter, shouldn't Gerald and Nilakantha have showed a little more attention to the dying Lakme, rather than just let her collapse in a heap?

Delibes' delicate heroine - indeed, his whole opera - deserves much more thought.


Where: The Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $40 to $135

Call: 410-727-6000 or go to www.baltimoreopera.com

Note: In French, with English surtitles

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