Chelsea Opera Puts on Memorable Performance of Neglected Massenet Opera


 Massenet, Le roi de Lahore (concert performance): Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group/Renato Belsadonna (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 01.03.2015 (CC)

Alim: Michael Spyres
Sitá: Anush Hovhannisyan
Timour : Jihoon Kim
Scindia: William Dazeley
Kaled: Justina Gringyte
Indra & Army Chief: Joshua Bloom



Massenet’s deliciously Orientalist opera Le roi de Lahore was amazingly receiving its first London performance since 1880. It was first performed at the Palais Garnier, Paris, in 1877, but its first modern performance had to wait until 1977 in Vancouver – with Joan Sutherland, no less. The composer’s first full-length opera, it contains huge amounts of the best, freshest Massenet. Long lines breathe youth and passion; at its heart is an idealism that age heartlessly cudgels into submission. It lasts three hours with one interval, but is a splendid example of its kind. The orchestration is inspired at times, while the use of offstage effects meshes beautifully with the plot.

This is not your everyday opera. The story is loosely based on a tale from the Mahabarata. The king of the title, Alim, dies at the end of the second act; in the very next act he sings, bargaining with the God Indra. It is Indra who has the power to restore life to Alim, and he does – but he also ensures that Alim returns to the Earth plane now as the lowest of the low on the social ladder. In terms of the timing of the evening, it all pans out quite well, given that Alim expires at the end of the second act (and therefore just before the interval) and starts singing in Paradise at the beginning of Act 3. Cast in five acts, there is the inevitable (but far from indispensable) ballet, inconsequential to the core but somehow irresistibly charming and marvellously – for the balletophobe – shorn of dancers to distract the eye. Philistine, I know.

It was good to see Renato Belsadonna. There’s a deliberate full stop there: you may know the name as the chorus master at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. So to see him wielding a baton and in full view is, at the very least, interesting. Unsuprisingly, the choral contributions throughout were of the highest calibre. His beat is not the most expressive, but it is clear and the orchestra responded well to him. (A pity the QEH acoustic was a little unflattering).

It would have been good, too, to see Robert Lloyd, a living operatic legend who unfortunately withdrew from the performance. An announcement informed us that Joshua Bloom would take both his advertised role (“Un Chef”, an army chief) and that of Indra, which Lloyd was to have sung: to spare confusion, when he sang at the back of the orchestra where the chorus was located, he was singing from the “holy” area as Indra; while at the front (presumably the secular area), he took his originally-intended role. His full, rich voice was perfectly fitting for the role of Indra.

The love interest, for there has to be one, is Sitá, here taken by Armenian soprano Anush Hovhanissyan. Hovhannisyan is a commanding presence and sings with a gleaming tone; yet she can be expressive and genuinely affecting. She has plenty to do, both vocally and dramatically. A priestess of the temple of Indra, she is pursued by Scindia (she is also his niece). She rejects his love for that of the King, Alim.

Jihoon Kim is a familiar name form Covent Garden, and in a larger role here (Timour, High Priest of Indra) he positively shone, his voice focused and he sang with real authority. Joshua Bloom was understandably a little score-bound as Indra but nevertheless made a fine fist of the role; he was more confident as the Army Chief. Mezzo Justina Gringyte takes the role of Kaled, the King’s servant. Her Lullaby in act 2 (“Ferme les yeaux, ô belle maîtresse”) was one of the highlights of the evening, fetchingly and tenderly delivered.

Despite the disappointment of Robert Lloyd’s absence, this was a memorable evening that once more underscored the dreadful neglect of Massenet’s stage works. The enthusiasm of the orchestra’s contribution and the feeling of all singers working towards a unified goal was, as so often with COG, palpable.

Colin Clarke

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