Eight years after their débuts in Leo Delibes’s Lakmé, Sabine Devieilhe and Frédéric Antoun triumph once again as the ill-fated lovers in this orientalist Romeo and Juliette story.
Set in British India in the 19th century, Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest, is stoking rebellion against the occupying British, who have forbidden him from practicing his religion. When he leaves his daughter Lakmé alone with her servant Mallika in the palace to join his followers, a group of Englishmen enters the property. At this point, Gérard and Lakmé meet and fall in love at first sight.
There can be nothing but praise for Sabine Devieilhe‘s beautiful interpretation of her character, both vocally and dramatically. She has perfected her technique over the years since her debut in 2014, which explains her confounding agility and clear diction. In the famous “Air des cloches,” she now has perfect mastery of the coloratura and is remarkably at ease throughout her extraordinary range. The much-awaited high E is as vibrant and precise as anyone could wish for. In the popular flower duet [watch and listen here], her voice blends beautifully with the rich tones of Mezzo-soprano Ambroisine Bré as Mallika.
On the evening of the premiere, Frédéric Antoun was less at ease but soon succeeded in freeing himself from nerves to completely incarnate this English soldier stricken by the grace and beauty of Lakmé. His Act 3 “Cantilène” was superb.
From his first appearance, Stéphane Degout is an imposing Nilakantha. His voice is particularly suited to the role’s tessitura, and he is at ease with his perfect French diction, beautiful phrasing, ample tone, and stage presence.
French director Laurent Pelly is clearly determined to avoid any form of fake orientalism. If his production has a little Far Eastern flavour, it leans more towards Japan than India. One is reminded of the post-war dance cult Butoh with the traditional white body makeup worn by several characters, particularly Nilakantha, who is painted white from the waist up. Noh theatre is also referenced in the simplicity of the sets: paper lamps and large white cut-out backdrops by Camille Dugas, enhanced by the lighting design of Joël Adam.
It’s difficult to understand why the director then allows for such cringe-provoking caricature with regards to the group of Englishwomen: Mireille Delunsch (Mistress Bentson), Elisabeth Boudreault (Ellen), and Marielou Jacquard (Rose), who hindered by their tight calf-length skirts, take tiny little steps, use affected hand gestures, and speak in high-pitched voices. Luckily, they are all excellent when singing: French-Canadian Elisabeth Boudreault and French mezzo-soprano Marielou Jacquard both have the vocal freshness, humour, and lyricism to portray young girls from British aristocracy— and that’s enough!
Another inexplicable pastiche is Mallika, who dressed like Suzuki and bowing like a Geisha, appears to have shuffled into the wrong opera. At least, François Rougier escapes any form of burlesque, bringing sincerity and authenticity to the role of Hadji.
It’s a pleasure to hear the superb French soprano Mireille Delunsch once again, albeit transformed into an old governess, but with a youthful voice.
The ironic duo “Ce sont des femmes idéales” featuring Philippe Estèphe (Frédéric) and Boudreault is lighthearted and beautifully sung.
The Pygmalion choir dressed in oriental finery embody the Hindu people to perfection. Raphaël Pichon gives the work a continuous flow with transparent textures, never overstating the pathos of the score.
Though this reopening of the season got off to a rocky start, including a fire alarm that rang out just as the spectators were entering the hall, delaying the performance, the evening was a huge success.
PERFORMANCE REVIEWED ON SEPT 28, 2022
Runs: Sept 28–Oct 8, 2022
Sabine Devieilhe, Lakmé
Frédéric Antoun, Gérard
Ambroisine Bré, Mallika
Stéphane Degout, Nilakantha
Philippe Estèphe, Frédéric
Elisabeth Boudreault, Ellen
Marielou Jacquard, Rose
Mireille Delunsch, Mistress Bentson
François Rougier, Hadji
Choir and orchestra Pygmalion.