Léo Delibes: Lakmé
Sabine Devielhe (Lakmé), Frédéric Antoun (Gérald), Stéphane Degout (Nilakantha), Ambroisine Bré (Mallika), Philippe Estèphe (Frédéric), Elisabeth Boudreault (Ellen), Marielou Jacquard (Rose), Mireille Delunsch (Mistress Bentson), François Rougier (Hadji), Guillaume Gutiérrez (A Chinese Merchant), Françoise-Oliver Jean (Fortune Teller), René Ramos Premier (A Kourava), Orchestra and Choir Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (conductor), Laurent Pelly (stage director and costume designer), Agathe Mélinand (dialogue adaptation), Camille Dugas (set designer), Joël Adam (lighting designer), François Roussillon (film director)
Recording: A co-production by ARTE France, NHK, Opéra-Comique with support of the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée, Opéra-Comique, Paris, France (October 4 and 6, 2022) – 135’
Naxos 2.110765 (or Blu-ray NBD0277V) (Distributed by Naxos of America) – NTSC 16:9 – PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 – Region 0 – Subtitles in French, English, German, Japanese and Korean
The British Haj, an occupation of the Indian peninsula (1858‑1947), paved a thinly faux outline of strife inside Léo Delibes’ opera. Premiering on April 14, 1883, this Britannic rule dwells upon E.M. Forster’s historical shell inside David Lean’s monumental A Passage to India (1984). However, Lakmé’s verve, predating the former, possesses interesting turns inside the realm of French musical theatrics. Since its inception (including this 2022 performance), Lakmé has rung up 1,610 engagements, though eclipsed by Thomas’ 2,066 performances of Mignon (1866) while running a distant third to the ever‑popular Carmen (1875), clocking in at 2,906. Notwithstanding these numbers (and an occasionally snarky guffaw), Lakmé still maintains gentle fondness and polite respect.
Laurent Pelly’s approach to theater is “respectful erudition and thinking outside the box”. This production, albeit, a tad bewildering, finds M. Pelly toning down ‘proverbial kitsch’ and replacing it with equivalencies of Kabuki theatre: passively minimal. Mild hints of denizens’ native costuming are flooded with shades of white and laced with kumadori paint. The approach cleverly contrasts with the British contingent dressed in tweedy Edwardian greys with Westernized makeup. Kabuki is highly stylized, thus driving the point of theatrical value while eschewing the proverbial ‘exoticisms’...keenly paralleling that of Léo Delibes’ music that evades (for the most part, though not entirely) full‑Indian persuasions.
Minimizing the effects of costuming and sets place greater concentration on Raphaël Pichon’s adept reading and sensitively-poised dynamics. The Pygmalion Ensemble is well-finessed to exude the charms of Léo Delibes’ music. Furthermore, this production turns back to the composer’s original score, using spoken dialogue, which is true in form with opéra‑comique. Collectively, Laurent Pelly is brilliantly incisive.
Sabine Devieilhe and Frédéric Antoun reunite after their visit in 2014. On balance, the pairing blends well, though M. Antoun’s performance is stiff and a tad over affected. In several instances he appears to struggle in the high register and gets occasionally swallowed up by Pygmalion. Singing Lakmé takes on interesting challenges since it requires pyrotechnical coloratura and an extremely high tessitura and a need to ‘ping’ difficult‑to‑reach notes while continuing to sing in a lyrical mode. Mlle Devieilhe is exemplary: politely nuanced, under acted and poised with exquisite breath control (although she appears taxed in the closing of the “Air des clochettes”). Restraint has its virtues, and she clearly demonstrates her deftness in this role.
M. Pelly arouses a chuckle or two with the entrée of the British delegation: the overarching in acting screams out loud as to how out of place Europeans interface with a faraway culture. Philippe Estèphe’s Frédéric nicely nudges and reminds Gérald about his “duty to country”. Holding reign in the religious department is Stéphane Degout who brings resolute stoicism to the Brahmin priest. The reading and vocal quality is imposing and tempered in mannerisms, yet he well‑convinces the audience of his religious stature through his stately baritone register.
As if in a trance (had she ever taken the poison?), Lakmé moves to stage front and proceeds to smear a wide vertical swath of white paint on her face. It’s hard to ignore the rite lying ahead in Madama Butterfly (1904). But this point re‑emphasizes Laurent Pelly’s symbolism. Intriguing and thought-provoking.