Chelsea Opera Group’s Lakmé was a memorable experience and the cast had no weak links

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delibes, Lakmé: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group / Matthew Scott Rogers (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 25.2.2024. (CC)

Haegee Lee

Lakmé – Haegee Lee
Gérald – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
Nilikantha – James Platt
Mallika – Polly Leach
Hadji – Magnus Walker
Mistress Bentson – Sarah Pring
Miss Ellen – Lorena Paz Nieto
Miss Rose – Caroline Carragher
A Fortune Teller – David Padua
A Chinese Merchant – John Vallance
A Gypsy – Kevin Hollands

Chelsea Opera Group is not a stranger to Delibes’s opera Lakmé; there was a previous performance back in 2002 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under Howard Williams, with Sine Bundgaard in the titular role. and Stephen Chaundy as Gérald.

Here, across the river at Cadogan Hall, over two decades later and with an early start of 6pm, Matthew Scott Rogers led the forces of Chelsea Opera Group in a new traversal with some marvellous voices, and one stand-out, that of Lakmé herself (of whom more anon). Scott Rogers has a fine ear for detail and the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra generally tackled Delibes’s demands with resolve and much, if not unfailing, success. Brass had body, and the low string melody of the Prelude was beautifully phrased, a special mention for the superb solo violin contributions of leader Diana Cummings later on. Woodwind solos had plenty of character.

Lakmé is a wonderful opera, set in colonial India and based in part on an 1880 novel by Pierre Loti (Le Mariage de Loti – a text also adapted by Reynaldo Hahn, incidentally, as L’île du rêve). Like Madama Butterfly, there are issues raised about conduct, and Delibes’s opera can rather treat some characters rather shallowly.

Having said that, every time I hear Lakmé I come away enchanted. And this performance was no exception. The opera works as a musico-dramatic entity thanks to the strength of Delibes’s vision. The fragranced harmonies, the transparent scoring and the vocal and choral writing, finely delivered by the chorus here, conspire to a memorable experience. There is only one central character though, that of Lakmé herself, and how South Korean soprano Haegee Lee embraced the role. Her voice is perfect: she took the high E alternative in the wordless roulades (what Carolyn Abbate refers to as Lakmé’s ‘Introductory Vocalizing’ (sic) in her fascinating book Unsung Voices, which begins with a consideration of the ‘Bell Song’). Lakmé’s death, acted out, finding Lee prostrate at the front of the stage, was massively touching, not least because the punishment hardly befits her crime. Lee also has a compelling stage presence that enables every demisemiquaver (and there are lots of them) to ring true. Her prayer that opens the first act (‘Blanche Dourga’) was truly gorgeous and contained, perhaps, hints of the Bell Song to come. And when it did come, it was a pristinely delivered treat indeed.

Tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas has been a noteworthy presence for some time, and he was every inch again with his portrayal of Lakme’s admirer, Gérald, ardent from the off. His voice is full and strong throughout its entire range, and he exuded the confidence not only of true – yet forbidden – love but also of a tenor moving towards the height of his powers. There was no doubting Thomas’s searing intensity. Matching Thomas’s strength and passion was Nilakantha, Lakmé’s formidable father, sung here by bass-baritone James Platt, his voice perfectly placed, and his diction the clearest of all singers on the night.

It is fair to say that there was no weak link in the cast here, although Haegee Lee did appear like a very high-pitched cherry on top. Lovely to see and hear Sarah Pring as Mistress Bentson, and to see baritone Julien van Maellerts as a very convincing Frédéric (like Gérard, a British army officer but Frédéric is the one who tries to persuade his comrade to ‘see sense’ and abandon the Orientalist love fantasy that is signified by Lakmé). I have enjoyed Mellaerts’s performances before, including an Opera in Song performance at Opera Holland Park in 2021 (review). He was the perfect foil for Thomas.

Talking of perfect pairings, mezzo-soprano Polly Leach was the creamy-yet-strong Mallika (Lakmé’s servant) and she herself was another perfect vocal match, this time for Lakmé. A trio of ‘Britishers’ (Mistress Bentson, an English Governess, Miss Ellen, Gérard’s fiancée and Miss Rose, Ellen’s companion) were utterly delightful. Soprano Lorena Paz Nieto shone as Miss Ellen and was, for me, the discovery of the evening, with Sarah Pring in fine voice as Mistress Bentson and Caroline Carragher characterful as Miss Rose. But it was in the ensembles that the casting made perfect sense: somehow in these, every line had its own individuality and yet made sense within the whole, a tribute also to Matthew Scott Rogers’s ability to command his forces. Even the tiny roles of a Fortune Teller (David Padua), a Chinese Merchant (John Vallance) and a Gypsy (Kevin Hollands). Tenor Manus Walker was a strong Hadji, Nilakantha’s servant.

A very full house appreciated the piece; re-hearing this score made one ache for another fully-staged production (my last was Opera Holland Park in 2015), perhaps instead of yet another Butterfly at Covent Garden. COG has a deservedly devoted following, their performance of Verdi’s I due Foscari (under the talented young conductor Mathew Kofi Waldren) on Sunday, June 9 is eagerly anticipated. A Puccini concert in November will pair Le Villi with the rarely-heard Capriccio sinfonico and Messa di Gloria. In the meantime, COG’s Lakmé has provided a ton of memories to keep at least this listener going.

Colin Clarke

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