Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: Lakmé

Xabier Anduaga & Sabine Devieilhe Star in Concert Performance of Delibes’ Masterwork

By Mauricio Villa

Teatro Real presented two concert performances of the iconic French opera “Lakmé,” with French specialist singers Sabine Devielhe and Stéphane Degout, accompanied by the award-winning young tenor Xavier Andagua. “Lakme,” by Léo Delibes, is a preeminent example of a narrative style of French opera which became incredibly popular towards the end of the 19th century: a story set in a far-off and exotic locale. Other examples from this period include Massenet’s “Le roi de Lahore” and Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs du perles.” These operas were a response to the fascination that audiences of the Belle Époque had with ‘oriental’ culture. Although “Lakme” broke away from the traditional French “Grand-Opera” style, which expected five acts and a long ballet, it swiftly became popular. Premiering in 1883, it went on to be performed over 1000 times in Opéra Comique, the theatre in which it opened, by 1931. The Flower Duet (“Sous le dôme épais”) and the Bells aria (“Air des clochettes”) have become some of the most popular pieces in opera history. Despite these accolades, the opera often languishes in oblivion during the opera seasons of most international theatres, though in France, it has been frequently performed ever since its premiere.

The titular protagonist has always been played by a lirico-leggero soprano. French opera created the lirico-leggero soprano: a vocal type that demands comfortable singing in a high tessitura, devilish coloratura, and extreme high notes above the high C: E natural in this opera. The soprano roles of the bel canto era, which preceded “Lakme,” written by composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti and which have since become the signature roles of leggero sopranos, were written for lyrical sopranos with an aptitude for coloratura. The general tessitura of the roles remained central, however, and very rarely did the scores go higher than D flat: all high variations and notes in bel canto opera have been interpolation by leggero sopranos who have appropriated those roles.

French Specialists and a Newcomer Shine

French lirico-leggero soprano Sabine Devieilhe portrayed Lakme. Devieilhe paid true homage to the role of the Indian priestess, with her crystalline, warm timbre, astonishing ability for diminuendo and pianissimo high notes, and immaculate coloratura. From her very first words, “Blanche che Dourga,” which occurs offstage, Devieilhe displayed her soaring fraseo, staccato and trills, and long sustained pianissimi B flats. Her voice shined in the famous Flower Duet with her velvety timbre, blending perfectly with mezzo-soprano Héloïse Mas and emitting soaring mezza voce B naturals. But it is in the second act aria, the Bells aria, where all sopranos are put to the test. Devieilhe followed the tradition of great French leggero sopranos like Mado Robin, Mady Mesplé or Natalie Dessayfor all of whom Lakme is one of their signature rolesand approached the aria bravely, with a depurated coloratura technique that enabled her to sing fast scales in a high tessitura with staccato high notes and a secure, clean attack of notes on the extreme edges of her tessitura. She colored and interpreted her opening cadenza, giving true meaning to every line by alternating fortes and pianissimos and not just giving a display of vocal fireworks.

Her interpretation was so moving that the audience burst into spontaneous applause in the middle of the aria “Et riant a la nuit,” after the soprano maintained a floating pianissimo B natural. The coloratura sections of the aria were impeccable, with fast staccato sections constantly moving between B naturals and C sharpsa truly high tessiturain perfect pitch, once again alternating fortes with pianos and clean, fast scales. Sadly, the final high E natural turned out to be extremely short and lacked projection to the point of being utterly inaudible when the orchestra played the final bars in forte. But a single dull high note did not spoil a remarkable interpretation of such a difficult piece. She sang an extremely moving final scene with her intelligent use of ethereal diminuendo and dynamics.

Award-winning Spanish tenor Xabier Anduagafirst place in Operalia 2019 and “best young singer” in the 2021 International Opera Awardssang the role of Gerald and reminded us all why he is one of the most promising tenors active in the operatic world today. His lirico-leggero timbre is beautiful, warm, and completely even from low to high. His depurated breath technique enables him to sing long legato phrases in the tenor passagio zone without timbre or volume changes. In fact, if he 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 brilliant and ringing. The range of the role is not extremely wideit does not go below the stave, and the highest note is a B naturalbut the tessitura is extremely hard, written constantly around the passagio area. The constant ascensions to high As and Bs are written in the melody lines and not as climactic high notes, which thus demand perfect control in the higher register. Andauga’s voice navigates easily in the upper range of the tessitura, delivering exquisite long, sweet melodies without any kinds of vocal tricks like apoggiature or portamento, which are totally unacceptable in the French repertoire.

His projection and phrasing are pure and clean. The tenor sang the first act aria “Fantasie aux divins mensonges” effortlessly, navigating comfortably around F and high A natural, showing 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 breath technique are secure, and his fraseo in the expansive melodies of his Act One duet with Lakme, “Ah! C’est le Dieu…,” sounded beautifullyand surprisinglyeffortless. His singing sounds so easy and natural that it hides the difficulties of the score and turns his interventions into pure singing enjoyment. He sang an ardent second act duo, “Lakme, Lakme! C’est toi,” with consistently sweet legato ascensions to B flats and a ringing final B natural. His interpretation only grew in dramatism in the short, final third act.

French baritone Stéphane Degout performed the character of Nilakantha, a role which was not exactly adequate for his lyrical instrument. The writing is mostly central and more appropriate for bass-baritones who possess strong vocal presence. But Degout sang with his warm, lyrical sound and avoided excessively darkening the sound to accomplish a fake sense of dramatism. His interpretation of his second act aria, “Lakme, ton doux regard se voile,” was emotional and moving, sang with extreme delicacy, impeccable French diction, and exquisite mezza voce. It was a luxury to hear such an excellent singer in so minor a role, who only sings the aforementioned short aria and some supporting spare lines.

The rest of the cast was adequate in 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 protagonist soprano and tenor. It is worth mentioning the intervention of veteran Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa, who gave an amusing interpretation of Mistress Benson with her dark, profound sound, mesmerizing lower register, and voluminous voice. French mezzo-soprano Héloise Mas was a perfect companion to Devielhe’s Lakme, especially during the famous Flower Duet, thanks to her excellent French diction and style.

Orchestra Highlights Delibes’ Exoticism

English conductor Leo Hussain knew how to extract the exoticism of Delibes’ score, delineating the refined timbrical inflections of the orchestration. He found the perfect balance between the voices of the soloists and the orchestra, something rarely seen nowadays and extremely difficult when the orchestra is placed at the same level and behind the singers, as it is usually positioned during concert performances. Some theatres opt to keep the orchestra in the pit during opera concert performances, which I believe helps make the singer’s voices audible. His reading of the score was powerful and lively. It is difficult to evaluate the performance of the Coro del Teatro Real, as they were placed behind the orchestra and wearing masks.

The choir sounded poor and distant, but this was only due to the health measures observed during performance.

An absolute success for Teatro Real in presenting Delibes’ underrated opera “Lakme,” with an excellent cast of specialist French singers and the participation of the promising young tenor Xabier Anduaga. The performance was warmly received by the audience, with ardent applause during the curtain calls. It was just a pity that the theatre did not stretch for a fully staged performance of such an iconic, yet oft-forgotten, French title, which was instead relegated to only two concert performances.


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