Lakmé: A Superb fusion of arts for all senses

This was a new production much talked about in the months leading up to its presentation by the Royal Opera House Muscat last weekend. A collaboration between ROHM, the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova with dancers from Opera Australia, Léo Delibes’ 1883 Opéra-Comique, “Lakmé” (Lakshmi) was a first for many reasons. Not least, this was the first and only production in Muscat to commission its own bespoke perfume and release its subtle fragrance during two Acts. From international haute perfumer, Roja Dove, the new blend of Lily of the Valley, Rose and Indian Sandalwood, was appropriately named ‘Lakmé’ using the flowers featured in the opera. This exciting World Premiere was directed by David Livermore, the outstanding Italian Artistic Director who created ROHM’s 2017, ‘The Opera!’.
The production combined evocative projections – giant illuminated coloured LCD screens, often of flowers and water scenes, by D-Wok Video Design, which gave a sense of motion and propulsion to the narrative using virtual or ‘video-mapped’ scenery technology. The innovative set design by the formidable trio of ‘Gìo Forma’ was mostly based on sliding gondola-like platforms over watery Lily Ponds. The Prelude was gently illustrated by a gradual unfolding of the atmospheric setting. In the central Act the ‘Opera Australia’ Dancers, dressed in Bharatanatyam costumes, performed a challenging faux-temple dance barefoot in the water, choreographed by Livermore himself to an exotic snake-charming oboe obligato, causing some unstable wobbles and shaky one-footed gestures. On Friday night the handsome Uruguayan tenor, Leonardo Ferrando as Gerald, slipped twice during a poignant scene in the final Act – fortunately not while singing.
Lakmé is set during the era of the British Raj in India, yet the two hundred costumes designed by the renowned Italian designer, Mariana Fracasso, featuring ubiquitous coloured saris and salwar kameez, Sikh turbans and priests’ robes with fabrics sourced and created in Muscat, were timeless. The pastiche English figures, on the other hand, were dressed in 1940s dresses and Safari Suits which added the lighter Opéra-Comique element perfectly to the production.
Delibes is a composer famous mostly for his 1870 ballet score, ‘Coppélia’ and this only remaining opera which contains one of the most recognised and beloved arias in the repertoire, the famous, ‘Flower Duet’ for Soprano and Mezzo-soprano. He was inspired to write the entire work – an ill-fated love story of conflict between religion and duty, purity and sensuality – by the compelling coloratura of contemporary American soprano, Marie van Zandt. The hugely demanding role of Lakmé, a Hindu priestess, was performed superbly on Thursday and Saturday nights by Romanian Soprano, Elena Moşuc who has established a reputation for being one of the world’s most versatile and expressive singers. The score constantly took her to the top of her range, yet she did not falter for a moment. Her execution of the oriental epic, “Bell Song” in Act Two (think: Queen of the Night’s Aria transported to India) was a testament to her control, and ability to sustain an improvisatory, ornamented line in her high tessitura. On Friday evening the character was inhabited by Russian Soprano, Svetlana Moskalenko with no less virtuoso technique and artistry. Her father, the vengeful Brahmin Priest Nilakantha, was performed with dramatic gravitas on the same nights by French lyric Bass, Nicolas Cavallier, while on Friday the Turkish Bass, Burak Bilgili, filled the auditorium with his warm, rich voice and presence. The British Officer Gerald, and indeed the only serious character from the West, was beautifully sung and acted by the rising Russian tenor, Sergey Romanovsky. Together they performed the beautiful duet in Act One, where the love between Lakmé and Gerald reaches palpable heights, with superb ensemble blending. Very early on during the three-and-half-hour show, Lakmé and her companion Mallika go down to the riverside to gather flowers. Here the iconic ‘Flower Duet’ was performed exquisitely by Moşuc and Italian mezzo-soprano, Raffaella Lupinaccio, in the most sublime moment of all. It formed a leitmotiv which was delightfully echoed each time Lakmé appeared or was mentioned.
In true Musical Hall style, the tea-drinking, cigarette-smoking Brits were brilliantly spoofed for their decadence and superficiality. The experienced Rossini Opera-Buffa specialist, Italian mezzo-soprano, Elena Zilio, was hilarious as Miss Benson the governess to Miss Ellen. Gerald’s English fiancée was performed with seductive panache and conviction by Italian soprano, Francesca Sassu. The Italian light-soprano, Francesca Benitez was equally well cast as Miss Rose in stylised sunglasses and floral culottes in the spinning umbrella routines. Forty-year-old Italian Baritone, Alessandro Luongo, maintained presence on both nights as Gerald’s confidante and officer, Frederick. The scene concluded in a delicious slapstick Quintet Finale and tableau.
Down in the pit the extraordinary Spanish conductor, Jordi Bernàcer, in Muscat for the third time, interpreted Léo Delibes’ lush 19th century French score, clearly influenced by Bizet’s 1875 opera, ‘Carmen’. The rich orchestration of that romantic language swelled with frequent chorus commentary, flowing arioso vocal writing, the watery sound of delicate violin solos from Leader, Elisabetta Garetti, melodic clarinet lines which suggested oriental exoticism, and off-stage fife (piccolo) and drum fanfares to conjure up marching regiments of the colonial forces. Central to the structure was a colourful market scene opening Act Two. It featured seven Omani Extras as Arabian merchants, Chinese traders and a pickpocket, with the ballet element transformed into Hindu ritual.
The slow, relaxing pace of the opera without over-fussy stage direction made for an accessible evening’s diversion, an undoubted success in Muscat. After it closes this stunning new ROHM production will be taken on a Grand World Tour to enchant audiences from LA to Shanghai.

STORY BY GEORGINA BENISON
PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDI