Holly Mathieson Conjures Up Atmospheric Lakmé in Holland Park

United StatesUnited States Delibes, Lakmé: Soloists, City of London Sinfonia/Holly Mathieson (conductor). Opera Holland Park, London, 27.7.2015 (CC)

Lakmé: Fflur Wyn
Gérald: Robert Murray
Nilakantha: Frederick Long
Frédéric: Adam Gilbert
Mallika: Sophie Dicks
Ellen: Rachael Brimley
Rose: Rosie Middleton
Mrs Bentson: Laura Zigmantaite
Hadji: Dominick Felix

London’s Summer celebration of talent has yielded high dividends this year. First, an excellent afternoon Jette Parker performance at the Royal Opera House recently; now, the Christine Collins Young Artist performance of Delibes’ Lakmé. And how magnificent it was to see Lakmé on stage! The opera remains the province, in this country at least, of opera companies of the ilk of Opera Holland Park; yet its neglect is unjust, if possibly understandable. The conjoining of acts 1 and 2 leads to a first “part” that lasts just shy of two hours, while the second part lasts around 45 minutes. There is quite an imbalance, and quite a Wagnerian-length sit for the first part, especially as the plot is tissue-thin. The small number of (prefab) loos didn’t help in the interval ..

The music itself is beautifully spiced in a wholly French way while the subject encourages Delibes to his best Orientalist manner. The set is fairly minimal and, it was to be said, rather flimsy; it is good that the words told us we were in the British Raj. Cloths might have billowed a little more than normal on this evening’s performance (2015’s London Summer has abandoned us to rain and wind, it would seem) and there was a feeling that the central golden installation might topple over at any point. A dancer (Lucy Starkey) who makes her presence felt from time to time presumably represents Lakmé’s underlying emotions, an idea that is beautifully realised here.

That said, if there was an atmosphere conjured up it was mainly due to the efforts of the orchestra under the excellent New Zealand conductor Holly Mathieson. Her gestures were impeccably clear and yet expressive, and the orchestra responded impressively to her way with the score. She naturally feels just the right amount of give and take, enabling the music to flow. The orchestra needs to be extremely flexible to avoid exuding a sort of generalist Gallic feel, and Mathieson was particularly adept at isolating the central feel of a particular section, or following the unfolding drama naturally. The score itself does not quite flow seamlessly, though. There are plenty of times Delibes sets up expectations that the scene or section is coming to an end before wresting the listener to pastures new, or just imposing a new twist on the music. It is an almost Schubertain feint. The Third Act contains the most rarified music, tender and pared down (often almost whispered, in fact) and in many senses it provides the finest dramatic experience of the evening also.

The good news is that Lakmé the opera is more than just a couple of well-known moments (the Flower Duet – thanks, British Airways – and the “Bell Song”). Like Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, the famous duet comes near the beginning. Unlike Bizet, Delibes does not work his material to death; freshness is the key to the success of this score. Mathiesson took the Flower Duet at a faster pace than I, for one, expected, and to good effect. It lost none of its tenderness but took on something of plangent whimsy. The Bell Song itself, taken by Fflur Wyn, was excellent (if not flawless) but by that time one had come to expect this level of excellence: from the start, Lakmé’s vocal line is dominated by vocal swirls and arabesques. Wyn has already essayed Blonde (Entführung, WNO) and Britten’s Governess (Turn of the Screw, Mexico City) and surely has a successful career ahead of her. Right from her entrance in a golden cage, she revealed herself to be both sensitive and vocally free as a bird. That the part is so demanding and the opera so long is no mean testament to Wyn’s talents. She was joined in the Flower Duet (“Sur le dôme épais”) by her onstage servant Mallika, here in the Young Artist performance Sophie Dicks (ex-RNCM and currently studying with Janis Kelly at the RCM). Dicks has a lovely voice, rich and secure, and came out as a real equal to Wyn.

Lakmé’s suitor Gérald was taken by David Murray, himself ex-Jette Parker. Murray’s voice is plangently expressive yet can add a touch of steel when required above a certain dynamic level. The Brahmin Nilakantha was taken by the large-voiced Frederick Long, who also had an opposing stage presence. His biography lists mainly cover roles, but on this evidence he will be ready to blossom into his own. The advantage of Opera Holland Park is that one really does get a sense of shared vision, and so it is that the smaller roles were given with aplomb. The two English women, Ellen and Rose, were just as delightful visually as they were vocally (Rachel Brimley and Rosie Middleton respectively). Dominick Felix made the most of the role of the slave Hadji.

The Chorus of Holland Park Opera was in splendid voice (Delibes makes telling use of the off-stage chorus). This was a terrifically enjoyable performance, especially so the freshness of the new vocal talent on display. If it is Fflur Wyn’s roulades that leave the most lasting impression, the actual gift is the realisation that the opera Lakmé is worth more than the two passing glances it normally receives. Antony Lias’ booklet note in the lavishly illustrated programme is fascinating, not least in its critical appreciation of recorded Lakmés of the past.

It was a memorable evening.

Colin Clarke