Love Across the Divide: Lakmé at the Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège

Delibes – Lakmé

Lakmé – Jodie Devos
Gérald – Philippe Talbot
Nilakantha – Lionel Lhote
Frédéric – Pierre Doyen
Mallika – Marion Leb
Ellen – Julie Mossay
Rose – Caroline De Mahieu
Mistress Bentson – Sarah Laulan
Hadji – Pierre Romainville
Un Kouravar – Beno
ȋt Delvaux
Un Chinois – Xavier Petithan
Un Domben – Beno
ȋt Scheuren

Chœurs de l’Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège, Orchestre de l’Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège / Frédéric Chaslin.
Stage directors – Davide Garattini Raimondi.

Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège.  Liège, Wallonia, Belgium.  Sunday, September 25th, 2022.

In a thoughtful note in the program book, the stage director of this new production of Lakmé, Davide Garattini Raimondi, highlights that this is a work that is well known but rarely performed.  Indeed, this is the first production at the Opéra royal de Wallonie- Liège since 1994 – although surprisingly, perhaps, there are currently two other runs of the work also taking place in Berlin and Paris, France.  Today, the house gave us a cast of francophone singers, led by French music specialist, Frédéric Chaslin.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

Raimondi’s staging is certainly attractive to look at.  He gives us three very distinct settings for each act – an intricately-designed temple, a colourful marketplace – while moving the forest setting of Act 3 to an English private members club, complete with portrait of Queen Victoria, with the ‘toit de verdure’ provided by the green tint of the lighting.  Raimondi and his creative team, squarely place the action in colonial India, with the English in Victorian garb, while we watched the remainder of the cast, majoritarily of European descent, given some Indian-inspired costumes and headwear to incarnate the locals.  The choreography, by Barbara Palumbo, offered additional Indian flavour.  In his program book note, Raimondi clearly demonstrates that his staging is well-researched with regards to Indian and Hindu traditions.  Yet, we are ultimately watching the work of a European creative team attempting to simulate the cultures and traditions of elsewhere – but then so of course was Delibes.  Raimondi’s note makes clear that he’s respectful of these traditions, but I do wonder how different the production would have been had he collaborated with a creative team of Indian heritage.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

For Raimondi, this is a highly contemporary tale, inasmuch as it focuses on love across boundaries as well as the impact of colonialism.  He gives us some glimpses to make us think – the Act 2 ballet sees a union jack on the stage, behind which we see shadows of soldiers attacking locals with their bayonets.  It’s an arresting image, but feels tokenistic as this theme feels barely explored during the rest of the evening.  Raimondi also has an actor, Rudy Goddin, incarnate an aged Gandhi who watches the action from the side of the stage, while excerpts from Gandhi’s speeches are intermittently projected onto the proscenium in French.  I’m not particularly convinced that this adds anything to the staging, particularly as Goddin’s Gandhi merely sits and watches, but it’s an attempt at any rate to provide some additional visual stimulus.  Otherwise, Raimondi gives us a fluent piece of theatre – the chorus is often parked on stage as a monolithic block, but there were moments in Act 2 where they were moved around imaginatively.  Similarly, the moment where Nilakantha stabs Gérald was also effectively managed.  I found how Lakmé was able to obtain her deadly flower in Act 3 from a bouquet on the bar of the member’s club, to also be a thoughtful touch – the ignorance of the English of their colonial territory meant that they put themselves at risk.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

Musically, the evening gave very much satisfaction – with one exception, so let’s get that out of the way first.  That was Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting.  This was a Sunday afternoon matinee, in a warm theatre, with audience members attending after lunch.  But the multitude of somnolent heads around me must have been exacerbated by Chaslin’s extremely languorous conducting in Act 1.  His tempi were not only slow, they felt overly manicured and lacking in any forward momentum.  His singers coped well with them, indeed Jodie Devos’s Lakmé was able to float her opening phrases with great pulchritude, hovering on the air.  In Act 2, it did feel that Chaslin had perhaps realized he’d been conducting with the parking brake on, finding a dynamism for the ‘air des clochettes’ that had been missing earlier.  It was interesting to compare with Roth’s conducting of Troyens the previous evening, where even in the slower music, there was a sense of purpose to the phrasing that Chaslin lacked.  The orchestra played well for him, founded on a big, rich string sound, that sounded more considerable than the relatively modest forces in the pit.  The quality of the playing was indeed most admirable.  The chorus sang with enthusiasm and tight ensemble, the basses particularly resonant, while the sopranos vibrated generously.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

Devos gave us a beautifully-sung Lakmé.  The tone has a bright sunniness to it, she has a creditable trill, and easy agility.  Moreover, she really used the words to bring her character to life, the coloratura always to the service of illustrating the text and creating character.  Her ‘air des clochettes’ was terrific, the florid writing executed with accuracy and aplomb.  Yes, there were a very few isolated passages during the evening where intonation wasn’t completely à point, and the highest acuti lose a little in quality, but make no mistake, Devos gave us a highly satisfying assumption of the role.  She also blended magically with Marion Lebègue’s claret-toned Malika. 

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

Philippe Talbot sang Gérald in a focused, well-placed tenor.  His isn’t the largest voice to have essayed this music and the narrowness of the tone did mean that he sounded rather stretched in the final act.  That said, he sang with so much sensitivity, to dynamics and to text, that I was completely won over.  He knows what his instrument is capable of, never pushed too hard, yet always sang with an implicit musicality, impeccable breath control, and ravishing shading.  Pierre Doyen sang Frédéric in a handsome, oaky baritone, with equally impressive breath control.  As Nilakantha, Lionel Lhote sang with a firm, cavernous baritone, big and solid in tone, with an impressively easy and penetrating top.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

The remaining roles reflected the strong quality one has come to expect at this address.  Pierre Romainville gave us an attractive lyric tenor as Hadji, indeed I would hope to hear his Gérald one day.  Sarah Laulan was delightfully raucous as Mistress Bentson, the text always clear.  There were inconsistencies in the French pronunciation within the cast – some used the traditional operatic rolled ‘r’, while others used the spoken more guttural ‘r’ in their singing.  While some singers do consider the rolled ‘r’ old-fashioned, it does enhance the quality of diction when singing unamplified in a theatre, and means that words like ‘cœur’ don’t get confused with ‘queue’, for instance.  It would certainly have been agreeable to have had more consistency in approach across the cast in this respect, however, the text was always clear across the board.

Photo: © ORW-Liège – J. Berger.

Overall, this made for a very satisfying afternoon in the theatre.  We were given a thoughtful production that made an effort to respect the traditions of the location of the plot.  There were also some meditations on colonialism that did provoke reflection, but felt somewhat like afterthoughts.  The conducting was also overly languorous for much of the evening.  And yet, the quality of the singing was excellent, capped with a terrific account of the title role and singing of great sensitivity from the male lead.  They were also joined by a very fine chorus and orchestra.  The cast was received warmly by the audience at the end. 

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