Lowell House Opera's performance of Leo Delibes' tragic opera, "Lakme," confirmed the prevailing opinion that "Lakme" is a musical feast, but by no means a dramatic one. The flimsy story that hides behind Delibes' gorgeously orchestrated harmonies and entrancing oriental melodies make the opera's initial success and subsequent neglect easy to understand. With the rise of thematically similar, yet dramatically savvier operas, such as "Madama Butterfly" only 20 years later, the long-term success of "Lakme" was not guaranteed; yet, this is not the first time an opera's music has far surpassed its dramatic content. The story of forbidden love, in this case between Lakme, the daughter of a Brahman priest, and Gerald, a British soldier, has been told in countless geographical settings and much more tragically, but there is still something to be said for the score of "Lakme." Lowell House Opera and Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya have done local opera-goers a great service by reviving this unique and mesmerizing score in the Boston area for the first time in 100 years.
All things considered, last night's cast brought exceptional enthusiasm to the stage and wrung as much depth from the opera's static characters as they could. Bass-baritone RaShaun Campbell, in the role of Lakme's devout and vengeful father Nilakantha, created the night's most dimensional character. His meaty tone radiated authority and, when necessary, aggression, but his touchingly gentle Act II aria, "Ton Doux Regard Se Voile," revealed a kindly father and a moment of tenderness in Nilakantha's otherwise impenetrable pride.
For Lakme in particular, this opera is one vocal showcase after another. Delibes' oriental melodies are so innately tuneful and require such virtuosity that execution often precedes expressivity. Robin Farnsley's performance in the title role of Lakme was both technically commendable and loaded with musicality. Her vocal phrasings often emoted more than the text itself and her clear, focused tone was perfectly suited to Lakme's youth and innocence. The famous Flower Duet between Lakme and Mallika (sung by Sadie Gregg) was one of the high-points of the performance. The two singers wove their melismatic lines together dexterously and Gregg's mellow mezzo-soprano voice blended soothingly with Farnsley's ringing tone.
Joshua Collier sang the role of the British soldier Gerald, who wins Lakme's affection, but is then torn between love and duty. There was something very natural about Collier's bright tenor and on stage he was always neck-deep in the passion of the moment. This passionate portrayal made his scenes visually engaging, but musically he fell a little short. Despite a lovely tone, Collier's phrases lacked direction and body and his timing was at times imprecise.
At the baton, Lidiya Yankovskaya led a compelling performance. The orchestra wielded a rich sound and animated the score with swelling dynamic inflection. The woodwinds were particularly polished and carried the exotic melodies elegantly. Unfortunately, the strings faced recurrent intonation problems throughout. The chorus produced a glorious body of sound and set the atmosphere in each of their scenes. The vibrant costumes enhanced the atmosphere and added a splash of color to the simple, yet effective two-level set.
Though opera plots have seen better days, Lowell House Opera's production of "Lakme" has proved that this opera deserves its day in the sun for musical reasons alone. The production is resourceful, the musicians engaging, and the opera charming.
Lowell House Opera's production of "Lakme" continues with performances on March 29, April 2, 4, and 5.