Wexford Festival Opera 2022 Review: Lalla-Roukh

Phelan Uncovers The Magic In David’s Neglected Opera

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)

For this year’s Wexford Festival Opera, its artistic director, Rosetta Cucchi, decided upon “Magic & Music” as its defining theme. As an umbrella term, it gives plenty of scope for selecting the operas for performance. The term can be applied narrowly, restricted to spells, wizards and witches, or more widely, bringing in fairy tales, legends, myths, ghosts, apparitions and enchanting worlds from the imagination. It could even be argued that opera itself is a world of magic and music.

Whatever the choice, the magic motif has to have a central role in each of the presentations; otherwise, the theme becomes little more than an empty slogan. Subsuming it into the plot as an incidental factor beneath an interpretation in which the director has other priorities, which was the impression gained from at least one of the operas on offer, does not suffice. This certainly was not the case, however, for Orpha Phelan’s production of Félicien David’s 1852 opera “Lalla-Roukh,” which, for the want of a better word, was simply ‘magical.’

The opera, to a libretto by Michel Carré and Hyppolyte Lucas, based on the poem “Lalla Rookh” by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, is a simple fairytale set in Persia. It actually contains no overtly magical events. On the way to meet her proposed husband, King Nourreddin, whom she has never seen, the Princess Lalla-Roukh falls in love with a minstrel. When she arrives at the court, she plans to reject the King’s proposal of marriage, only to discover that the King is actually the minstrel.

Phelan’s Magical Direction

In Phelan’s hands, this simple tale became another world, a world of make-believe, populated by faeries, banshees, sprites, sorceresses and other colorful characters taken from Irish folklore and elsewhere. Aided by scenographer and costume designer Madeleine Boyd, choreographer Amy Share-Kissiov, and lighting designer D.M. Wood, she created stunning mise-en-scènes, full of movement, dance and color, with plenty of fun added to the mix for good measure.

From the outset, Phelan showed real skill in defining and relaying the narrative in a sharply focused, inventive and amusing way. During the overture, the audience watches customers arriving for a tea or a cake at Leila O’Rourke’s Tea Emporium, in front of which appears a tramp who begins to search through a wheelie bin. Just a typical scene in present-day Ireland, where homelessness has long since gone beyond crisis point, when he suddenly discovers a copy of Moore’s “Lalla Rookh.” Within minutes the stage has been transformed.

This clever device allowed Phelan to scrap the original dialogue, which was written to meet the demands of Paris’ Opéra-Comique, and replace it with a narrator, namely the tramp, who talked the audience through the opera while going about his business. Drawing upon the storytelling traditions of Ireland and speaking in the vernacular, Lorcan Cranitch quickly established an excellent relationship with the audience and had them laughing and sympathizing with his tale, yet he always kept himself at a safe distance; his inner pride was at stake, and he was not going to compromise it for the price of a story, no matter his circumstances. Staying in character for the final curtain call, he dismissively shrugged off the warm applause.

As Lalla-Roukh’s road trip begins, accompanied by Mirza, her lady-in-waiting, and Baskir, who has been sent by Nourreddin to protect her, she meets the minstrel. There then follow the usual shenanigans as, aided by Mirza, the minstrel attempts to evade Baskir in order to spend time with Lalla-Roukh. It was all staged in a light and amusing manner, certainly nothing heavy, and always at Baskir’s expense, who fears Nourreddin’s wrath if he fails in his mission. Not a threat that the audience takes seriously, of course; it is not that sort of tale!

Very little happens in the second act, which is basically used as a further excuse for more dazzling costumes, wonderfully colored, lavishly furnished scenery, and dancing, topped by a glittering wedding that included Nourreddin, dressed in a golden colored suit of armor.

It may not be an opera to everyone’s tastes. Its frivolity, superficiality and childlike story may well have alienated the more serious-minded, but the sardonic humor of the narrator would have, at least, taken the edge off the saccharine aftertaste by adding a realistic framework to the presentation. And it would have been near impossible not to have been charmed by the beautiful staging.

A Spellbinding Cast Weaves Its Magic

In the title role was the French soprano Gabrielle Philiponet, who impressed with her tonal beauty as well as with the elegance and grace with which she was able to enunciate her lines, which, of course, was helped by singing in her native language. Although she gave the appearance of being demure, chaste and refined, she was no shrinking violet. In fact, she was quite feisty and determined, even prepared to wield a sword in her own defense if need be, which she supported with intelligent phrasing furnished with pleasing dynamic and emotional accents. She also demonstrated her sensitivity and skill in crafting gently moulded lines of exquisite beauty in the well-known aria “Sous le feuillage sombre.”

Having watched what was a fairly uninspiring and lackluster recital from tenor Pablo Bemsch earlier in the day, expectations were not particularly high for his evening performance as Nourreddin. However, he proved to be a far better stage artist, with a confident, energetic presentation that captured his character’s ardent desire for Lalla-Roukh as well as successfully contributing to the general sense of fun. Singing with a romantic lilt, he coped easily with the role’s high tessitura, delivering his lines securely, with sufficient passion and élan, yet without ever offending the work’s not-too-serious, light aesthetic.

Mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivan produced a playful performance in the role of Mirza, notably so when she was distracting Baskir by pretending to seduce him, so that Nourreddin was able to meet with Lallah-Roukh. O’Sullivan is a singer very much on the rise at the moment, and this performance, although not very demanding, certainly showed off her voice to good effect. Her light vibrato, wonderful vocal coloring, delicate coloratura and attractive phrasing all impressed. Unfortunately, she had only one single, short aria to sing.

Baritone Ben McAteer made for a compelling Baskir, whom he portrayed as a pompous buffoon, doomed to watch his efforts fail as he struggled to keep Lalla-Roukh under his watchful eye. He also displayed a real flair for the comic, with his timing invariably spot on. Likewise, the vocal depth and subtlety that he brought to the role also captured its comic nature, as he accented and exaggerated his singing to good effect.

The cast was completed by baritone Emyr Wyn Jones as Bakbara and bass Thomas D. Hopkinson as Kaboul, who acted as a comedy duo, popping in and out of the performance to keep the comedy in a constant state of flux. Both produced well-sung, animated performances.

The conductor Steven White elicited a vibrant rendition from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, which captured the oriental flavor and immediacy of the score’s many melodies. He also engineered a wonderful forward momentum, which carried along the on-stage drama despite being broken into musical blocks by the dialogue.

“Lalla-Roukh” has now largely been forgotten, yet in the second half of the 18th century, it proved to be immensely popular, clocking up over 400 performances, which, based on this performance, is not a surprise. However, as the demand for all things oriental fell out of favor, so too did “Lalla-Roukh.” Today, the presentation of an oriental subject in such a quaint, stereotypical manner would also be problematic. Phelan’s resetting of the opera into what was an essentially Irish-inspired context managed to side-step the issue and allow the work to be accessed free from its 18th century storybook perspective, with positive results.


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