23 September 2013

Lakmé: Beauty for Eyes and Ears

What a lovely way to start the opera season in Montréal! I had fabulous company and we happened to be there on the day underscoring the 50th anniversary of Place des Arts, with shows in every performance space that evening. If we needed yet another reason to love this city, it was delivered by the realization that we were sitting in the middle of a space that 50 years ago was considered an iffy choice for an arts complex but that today is bubbling with cultural life in all of its spaces, in neighbouring sites and out onto the streets around it.

The other thing we got to see on the way in was the participation of an Indo-Canadian cultural group, present and giving a lovely air of authenticity to an opera set in colonial India. They lined the way into the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in resplendent saris set off by lovely genuine smiles. This was an excellent move on the part of the Opéra de Montréal.
This production is beautiful. From the curtain that greeted us as we took our seats to every costume and set detail, it felt rich and luscious and more than a little bit exotic. That, of course, was only the beginning.

You might be familiar with this duet, here drawn from a performance elsewhere in concert format. I remember it from an Air Canada commercial, I believe [UPDATE: totally wrong! It was British Airways!], which sounds terribly cheap, but should be credited with making opera a little more familiar and accessible, just as Bugs Bunny did on a couple of occasions.

Sopranos Audrey Luna and Emmar Char (Ms. Char is from the Altelier lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal!) sang it with such beautiful clear voices that I never wanted it to stop. At each point later in the opera where there were bits of the song heard in the distance, I just wanted it to come back to centre stage and go on and on.

The Bell Song (Air des clochettes) came in the second act and I have again drawn the video from a concert elsewhere. Let me say that Audrey Luna really did this beautiful song justice. What an amazing voice! The song contains little parts that reminded me of sections of the Queen of the Night aria — here she is singing the bells — but I found this song much more pleasant and less jarring in its transitions. So delighted to have heard it here with this soprano first.

The story (I do like to go on about the stories) is appropriately tragic. The little party of British interlopers who despoil the sacred place in the forest by treading in it, the man who stays behind to sketch Lakmé’s jewelry (an authentic colonialist would probably just have scooped it up and sketched at home!) and falls in love with her and her voice’s beauty. It cannot be, of course, and Lakmé’s father sets out to identify the man responsible for the despoiling of the sacred place who also dared to gaze upon his daughter.

The plot plays out, and our Gérald is stabbed in a crowd. We think he is done, but since when has anyone died quickly in an opera? Lakmé and her manservant Hadji rescue him and Lakmé nurses him back to health in the forest. He awakens and it seems like they will find their love and live happily ever after. But no, we are again reminded that this is opera. Gérald’s fellow soldier Frédéric finds him while Lakmé is away from the shelter getting water from a sacred well, the drinking of which from the same ivory cup will cement their love. Gérald is reminded of his duty to the army and his British fiancée and when Lakmé returns she can see the change on his face.

Her lover slipping away, if not yet physically, Lakmé eats a poisonous flower before they drink from the cup. They drink, and she weakens, even as she protects him from her father by informing him that they are committed to each other through the drinking from the cup. Lakmé dies, and rather suddenly for an opera, I must say!

The audience at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier applauded long and hard, but we mostly saved our standing ovation for Audrey Luna. It’s very impressive to see an entire room leap to its feet to pay tribute to a star, and for the crowd to hold back until her arrival on stage was no slight to the rest of the cast, but a recognition of her amazing talent.

A great start for the season.

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