Ailyn Bozok is used to working on limited means. Her Grimeborn Werther last summer – done with a piano, a handful of singers and a few drapes – was a model of minimalism yet still landed its emotional punches. It comes as no surprise that on moving to the wide Holland Park stage for another French opera, Bozok directs a deliberately spare Lakmé which, for the most part, works well.

Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Robert Murray (Gérald) © Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Robert Murray (Gérald)
© Robert Workman

Shorn of excess exoticism, the action focuses on designer Morgan Large’s compact and bijou temple, a beautiful construction with giant lotus petal sliding doors of filigree latticework. The rest of the stage lies bare, which is not necessarily a bad thing but – apart from a trio of peacocks adding a few “voices off” – a degree of imagination was required to conjure up 19th century India under the British Raj. For an opera where floral connotations are crucial – Lakmé takes her own life by eating a leaf from the poisonous datura plant – the lack of flowers in the temple garden is problematic. A strip of blue at the front of the stage delineating ‘water’ is not always observed by all characters all of the time.

Delibes’ opera, to a libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, is uncomplicated, telling the tale of the Brahmin high priest’s daughter, Lakmé, who falls in love with British officer Gérald. When their secret is discovered, vengeance and the conflict between love and duty are the order of the day. Nilakantha, the priest, stabs Gérald, but only wounds him. Lakmé nurses him back to health, holy water confirming their bond. But Gérald is reminded of his military duties, causing Lakmé to take her own life.

Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Katie Bray (Mallika) © Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Katie Bray (Mallika)
© Robert Workman

Bozok often manages to take something very simple and make it very beautiful. There are no extraneous concepts or trying to stuff the production with too many ideas. Stage movements are symbolic in nature, almost Robert Wilson-like in minimalist gesture. This works well in the case of Lakmé’s servants Mallika (Katie Bray) and Hadji (Andrew Dickinson), who present unblinking devotion and a serene stage presence. It works less well when it comes to directing the chorus, where minimal movement doesn’t sit comfortably with the bustling bazaar of Act II. Mistress Bentson, the governess of Gérald’s fiancée, supposedly throws a wobbly because of the claustrophic crowds. Fiona Kimm’s battleaxe Bentson had no such cause for concern here. The subuded costuming of the chorus also deprived this scene of much-needed colour.

Lakmé demands much of the soprano tackling the title role. Fflur Wyn delivered a strong performance – more sensual woman than chaste priestess – her lyric soprano opening up beautifully in its upper reaches. In the famous Bell Song “Où va la jeune Hindoue", she demonstrated hypnotic melismata, a sure trill, delicate pianissimi and a fine top E, with just a few intonation slips in the wide coloratura leaps towards its close. She is also required to participate in the ballet, where Lucy Starkey – Lakmé’s consience? – leaps, twirls and crouches among the chorus. Starkey, in turn, accompanies the Bell Song, where her presence grew to be a distraction, returning in Act III for some drape twirling.

Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Robert Murray (Gérald) © Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn (Lakmé) and Robert Murray (Gérald)
© Robert Workman
Robert Murray’s Gérald was impeccably sung, his fine golden tone well suited to this repertoire. His aria “Prendre le dessin d'un bijou” was delectable, accompanied by rippling clarinet, while his duets with Wyn’s Lakmé were tenderly undertaken. Bozok directs the leading pair in a touching Act III.

Fresh from bull-fighting duties as Escamillo at Glyndebourne, David Soar again impressed with his sturdy bass and fine diction as the zealous Nilakantha. The standard of French from the rest of the cast was variable. Katie Bray’s warm mezzo blended well with Wyn in Act I’s ‘Flower Duet’, the opera’s most recognisable melody, while Maud Millar and Fleur de Bray provided good support as British ladies Ellen and Rose. Frédéric, Gérald’s fellow officer, was solidly sung by baritone Nicholas Lester.

Matthew Waldren led a vivid account of Delibes’ colourful score, sparkling nicely in the Opéra Comique style choruses and the quintet for the Brits in Act II. At times, though, Waldren pushed ahead a little too readily where languor was requried, and a greater complement of strings could have lent more body to the sound. The ballet bristled with vigour – especially the lively timpani – and harp and glockenspiel were perfectly in time in the Bell Song.

If you accept the minimalist style – and not everyone will warm to it – then you’ll find much tender beauty in Bozok’s Lakmé, with fine musical performances to match.

***11