Review Teatro Real 2021-22: Lakmé
Teatro Real presented two concerts of the iconic French opera “Lakme”, with French specialist singers Sabine Devielhe and Stéphane Degout, accompanied by award-winning young tenor Xavier Andagua. “Lakme”, by Léo Delibes, is a preeminent example of a narrative style of French opera that became incredibly popular towards the end of the 19th century: a story set in a distant and exotic place. Other examples from this period include Massenet’s “The King of Lahore” and Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”. These operas responded to the fascination of Belle Époque audiences for “oriental” culture. Although “Lakme” broke away from the traditional French style of “Grand-Opéra”, which provided for five acts and a long ballet, it quickly became popular. Premiered in 1883, it has been performed more than 1000 times at the Opéra Comique, the theater in which it opened in 1931. The Flower Duet (“Under the thick dome”) and the Air of the bells (” Air des clochettes”) have become one of the most popular pieces in the history of opera. Despite these accolades, the opera often languishes in oblivion during the opera seasons of most international theaters, although in France it has been performed frequently since its inception.
The titular protagonist has always been played by a lirico-leggero soprano. French opera created the soprano lirico-leggero: a vocal type that requires comfortable singing in a high range, devilish coloratura and extreme high notes above the high C: natural E of this opera. The soprano roles of the bel canto era, which predated “Lakme”, written by composers like Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti and which have since become the iconic roles of leggero sopranos, were written for lyrical sopranos with a stainability. The general tessitura of the roles remains central, however, and very rarely the scores exceed D flat: all the variations and high notes of the bel canto opera have been interpolated by leggero sopranos who have appropriated these roles.
French specialists and a newcomer shine
French lirico-leggero soprano Sabine Devieilhe interpreted Lakme. Devieilhe paid true homage to the role of the Indian priestess, with her crystalline and warm timbre, her astonishing aptitude for the treble diminuendo and pianissimo, and her immaculate coloratura. From his first words, “Blanche che Dourga”, which occurs offstage, Devieilhe showed off his soaring fraseo, staccato and trills, and long sustained pianissimi flats. Her voice shone in the famous Flower Duet with its velvety timbre, blending perfectly with mezzo-soprano Héloïse Mas and emitting mezza voce B naturals flights. But it is in the aria of the second act, the aria of Bells, that all the sopranos are put to the test. Devieilhe followed the tradition of the great French leggero sopranos like Mado Robin, Mady Mesplé or Natalie Dessay—for anyone who Lakme is one of their signature roles—and approached the tune bravely, with a pared-back coloratura technique that allowed him to sing rapid scales in a high range with staccato high notes and a sure, crisp attack of notes at the far edges of his range. She colored and interpreted her opening cadence, giving real meaning to each line by alternating between forts and pianissimos and not just giving vocal fireworks.
Her rendition was so moving that the audience erupted in spontaneous applause midway through the aria “E riant à la nuit,” after the soprano had maintained such a natural floating pianissimo. The coloratura sections of the tune were flawless, with fast staccato sections constantly moving between B naturals and C sharps—a really high tessitura—in perfect pitch, again alternating between forte and sharp, rapid pianos and scales. Unfortunately, the final high natural E turned out to be extremely short and lacked projection to the point of being completely inaudible when the orchestra played the final bars in forte. But a single dull high note did not spoil a remarkable rendition of such a difficult piece. She sang an extremely moving final scene with her clever use of ethereal diminuendo and dynamics.
Award-winning Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga—first place at Operalia 2019 and “best young singer” at the International Opera Awards 2021—sang the role of Gerald and reminded us all why he is one of the most promising tenors active in the world of opera today. Its lirico-leggero timbre is beautiful, warm and completely equal from bass to treble. His clean breathing technique allows him to sing long legato phrases in the tenor passagio zone without changing timbre or volume. In fact, if it covers the sound around the passagio area, it is not noticeable at all. His voice projection is astounding: he was by far the most audible of the entire cast, and his high notes were bright and ringing. The range of the role is not extremely wide—it does not drop below the staff, and the highest note is a natural B—but the range is extremely hard, constantly written around the passagio area. The constant ascents to high A and B are written in the melodic lines and not as culminating high notes, which therefore require perfect control in the upper register. Andauga’s voice navigates easily through the upper range, delivering exquisite long, sweet melodies without any sort of vocal artifices like apoggiature or portamento, totally unacceptable in the French repertoire.
His projection and phrasing are pure and crisp. The tenor sang the first-act aria “Fantasie of Divine Lies” effortlessly, comfortably navigating around the natural high F and A, showing off his elegant fraseo and pure, clean attack of the high notes. He delivered a perfect mezza voce sustained high A flat at the end. His vocal projection and breathing technique are sure, and his fraseo in the expansive melodies of his duet Act One with Lakme, “Ah! This is the God…”, sounded beautifully—and surprisingly—effortlessly. His singing seems so easy and natural that he hides the difficulties of the score and transforms his interventions into pure singing pleasure. He sang a fiery second-act duet, “Lakme, Lakme! It’s you,” with consistently smooth legato rises to B-flats and a resoundingly natural finale. His interpretation gained in drama only in the short and last act of the third.
French baritone Stéphane Degout performed the character of Nilakantha, a role that was not quite adequate for his lyrical instrument. The writing is mostly central and more appropriate for low-baritones who possess a strong vocal presence. But Degout sang with his warm, lyrical sound and avoided overly darkening the sound to accomplish a false sense of drama. Her rendition of her second-act aria, “Lakme, ton douce regard se voile,” was moving and moving, sung with extreme delicacy, impeccable French diction, and exquisite mezza voce. It was a luxury to hear such an excellent vocalist in such a minor role, who only sings the aforementioned short tune and a few spare backing lines.
The rest of the cast had adequate style and sang well, but they were all relegated to short interventions, mostly in recitatives and ensembles, as the opera was clearly written for the soprano and tenor protagonists. It is worth mentioning the intervention of the veteran Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa, who gave an amusing interpretation of Mistress Benson with her dark and deep sound, her haunting low register and her voluminous voice. The French mezzo-soprano Héloise Mas was a perfect companion for Lakme de Devielhe, especially during the famous Flower Duo, thanks to her excellent diction and French style.
The orchestra highlights the exoticism of Delibes
The English conductor Leo Hussain has been able to extract the exoticism of Delibes’ score, delimiting the refined timbral inflections of the orchestration. He found the perfect balance between the voices of the soloists and the orchestra, something rare these days and extremely difficult when the orchestra is placed at the same level and behind the singers, as it is usually positioned during concerts. Some theaters choose to keep the orchestra in the pit during opera concerts, which I think helps make the singer’s voice audible. His reading of the score was powerful and lively. It is difficult to assess the performance of the Coro del Teatro Real, as they were placed behind the orchestra and wore masks.
The choir sounded poor and distant, but this was only due to the sanitary measures observed during the performance.
An absolute success for Teatro Real in the presentation of the unknown opera by Delibes “Lakme”, with an excellent cast of specialized French singers and the participation of the promising young tenor Xabier Anduaga. The performance was warmly received by the audience, with fiery applause during the encores. It’s just a shame the theater didn’t stretch out for a fully staged performance of such an iconic, but often forgotten, French title, which was instead relegated to just two gigs.