Some of the audience couldn't restrain themselves: the bravos and applause rang out. One listener was furious: “Be quiet! It isn't finished yet!” And correctly so, because the young Hindu girl had just about finished the first verse of the Bell Song when the hall was making heard its enthusiasm without waiting for the second. But to be fair, it was hard not to go with that audience, faced with such a high quality performance.

<i>Lakmé</i> at Opéra Grand Avignon, staging by Lilo Baur © Delestrade/ACM-STUDIO
Lakmé at Opéra Grand Avignon, staging by Lilo Baur
© Delestrade/ACM-STUDIO

Sabine Devieilhe, singing the title role for the fourth time, bewitched the hall. Fortunately, the young French coloratura wasn't the only one to conquer the audience. This revival of the Opéra Comique's 2014 production surpasses all our expectation. 

First performed in Paris at that same Opéra Comique in 1883, the opera relates the impossible love between a Brahmin's daughter and in English general at the height of the colonial era in India. It earned Delibes one of the biggest successes in the institution's history. So it's delightful to see the work back on the playbill in France with – rare event – an almost entirely French cast.

Before relating this show's obvious success, let's start with the flaws – of which, I'm glad to say, there are not many – which are both in the pit and on stage. It's difficult to judge fairly conductor Laurent Campellone's interpretation and musical direction when ears are preoccupied by significant errors in accuracy, sharpness in attach and a general lack of togetherness in the musicians of the Orchestre Régional Grand-Avignon. Strings were particularly out of line, following the conductor's tempi erratically, with entries often late. The indiscipline is all the more disappointing because Campellone has a lot of good ideas of how to bring across this music. Tempi are just right, nuances are interresting and the balance between pit and stage consistently well thought out. On stage, Florian Laconi's Gerald also misses the mark with an overly forceful interpretation. The French tenor surprises us with a lack of finesse and nuance, a lack of elegance (so important in this repertoire) and highs that are often narrow and shaky. Fortunately, the rest of the singers enchanted us.

Julie Pasturaud, Ludivine Gombert, Chloé Briot and Christophe Gay make for a well balanced quartet of English, thanks to the obvious vocal qualities of each. Technical mastery, elegance and freshness are all brought to the party. Nicolas Cavallier is a luxury Nilakantha. Full of authority, with exemplary diction and a voice that's always clean, he conquers us with a perfectly tuned interpretaion. And one can't fail to fall under the spell of Julie Boulianne's Mallika, singing the Flower Duet with Lakmé in perfect coherence.

Sabine Devieilhe (Lakmé) © Delestrade/ACM-STUDIO
Sabine Devieilhe (Lakmé)
© Delestrade/ACM-STUDIO
And Lakmé? What can one say other than that her interpretation touches the sublime. We've already heard Sabine Devieilhe when she sang the role in Montpellier in 2012. Since then, the voice has settled and gained in power while her interpretation has matured. Every aria is delivered to perfection. The Act II Bell Song is masterfully virtuosic and laden with nuances. The Act I aria “pourquoi dans les grands bois” is touchingly fresh. And most of all, it's in the final “tu m'as donné le plus doux rêve” that Devieilhe overwhelms us. Her pianissimo nuances, the elegance of her phrasing and her fragility truly trouble us. Hanging on her lips, already won over, the audience was hushed to utter silence to miss nothing from this exceptional musician. I could only agree.

Finally, Lilo Baur presents a truly seductive staging, appropriately sober and delicate. Plaudits to the beautiful set for Act III, made from creepers hanging down and representing a weeping willow. The costumes are delicately handled without glaring colours. Lighting is subtle, providing the eyes with seductive colour. In itself, a staging that's precisely measured, with acting direction precise, avoiding visual overload.

All in all, a delight for eyes and ears, doing full justice to the opéra comique repertoire in exactly the way it deserves. Treated thus with the same level of care as the “grand opera” repertoire, this music – so delicate, so French – proves to us that it well deserves its place on the playbills of French musical theatre.

 

Translated from French by David Karlin