Lalla Rookh is a poem by Irish poet Thomas Moore. Félicien David’s two-act opera Lalla-Roukh from 1862 changed the spelling, added a hyphen and appended a melodious score. In the way of the opéra comique genre, librettists Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas included spoken dialogue, here replaced by narration. We are notionally in Kashmir and Samarkand, but the opening set of Orpha Phelan's Wexford production, with more respelling, is “Leila O’Rourke’s Tea Emporium”. 

Lalla-Roukh at Wexford Festival Opera
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Outside a man adds to his supermarket trolley of possessions from a nearby dustbin, acquires a copy of Thomas Moore’s tale, and thus becomes our narrator. Teashop customers arrive, are served, then supplanted by as motley a chorus of real and surreal characters as set and costume designer Madeleine Boyd could devise; the ten-minute overture accompanies all this, before the opening chorus assures us, against all evidence, that we are in “le pays des roses”.

Several extended choruses adorn the score, not least to turn a very slender fairy tale – Princess Lalla-Roukh must marry a king, prefers her humble poet Nourredin, who happily turns out to be the king – into an evening of opera. To those soprano and tenor leads a baritone and mezzo-soprano are added; the former is Baskir, charged by the king with escorting Lalla-Roukh to her wedding (and keeping her “intacta”), the latter Lalla-Roukh’s maid Mirza. Mirza keeps Baskir busy so that poet and princess can meet ‘in her tent’ (i.e. under the teashop’s long table-cloth).

Ben McAteer (Baskir) and Pablo Bemsch (Nourreddin)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

In the greater dignity of the columned hall of Act 2, deals are offered, resisted and re-asserted, all punctuated by choruses, parades and dances, until Lalla-Roukh agrees to follow her duty not her heart, and marry this unseen king. Hard to make the predictable reveal very revelatory, so the design opts for Disney and as dazzling a golden-armoured hero-king as a costume department can create.

Hector Berlioz, that supreme Parisian arbiter of musical achievement, praised David’s opera, and there is plenty to admire still. A lyrical gift serves both leads in both acts, the second pair contrast and combat with comic effect, choruses enchant or stir as needed, large ensembles are built over long spans, and conductor Steven White and his players enjoy the orchestral skill that colours many moments. White shaped the whole work with balance and good tempi.

Lorcan Cranitch in Lalla-Roukh
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Phelan had inventive fun with it for Wexford Festival Opera and so did we. Perhaps David meant the piece to be a gentle send-up (Offenbach began his career of satirical operettas four years earlier), but it works without impairing the essential charm. As the narrator, Lorcan Cranitch had a few visual gags, including a washing line of socks from his trolley masquerading as celebratory flags, alongside a witty, occasionally risqué narration (by Timothy Knapman). Invisible to all on stage, he aided the action as needed. Seven toy-like soldiers emerged from a drum and marched about, while Amy Share-Kissiov’s choreography supported the spirit of the goings-on.

Niamh O’Sullivan (Mirza) and Gabrielle Philiponet (Lalla-Roukh)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Just four singers carry virtually all the solos and smaller ensembles. Lalla-Roukh was French soprano and Wexford debutant Gabrielle Philiponet, bringing tonal beauty to her role despite an occasional mildly squally moment when the pitch and volume went up. She was always affecting in portraying her emotional dilemma, the heart of the operatic matter. Argentinian tenor Pablo Bemsch was an ardent Nourreddin, starting well enough and getting better as the piece went on, ending with some of the best singing of all. 

Emer Wyn Jones (Bakbara) and Thomas D Hopkinson (Kaboul)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Ben McAteer, from Northern Ireland and making his Wexford debut, was Baskir, who has never seen the king (essential to plot plausibility so he can spend the opera ignorantly frustrating his boss). He is a dupe made sympathetic by a fine voice and almost overcomes his silly outfit, a pin-striped suit with grubby fur trim, an oriental Prufrock – “I'm absurd, I'm absurd, I shall wear the bottoms of my trouser furred”. His sparring with Mirza was entertaining, vocally and histrionically. Singing Mirza, Irish mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivan sang superbly, and confirmed her reputation as the possessor of one the loveliest voices of its type to be heard anywhere. This season is labelled “Magic and Music” and what casting Wexford can often conjure up.