This is what Chelsea Opera Group was put on this earth for! Take an obscure grand opera that Covent Garden wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, prune it ever so slightly, cast it solidly and serve it in concert form to a public eager to lap up French delicacies. For Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore, however, the casting was truly starry – Michael Spyres, no less, as the King – and the amateur orchestra, under the watchful eye of Renato Balsadonna, was on inspirational form. Together, they presented the strongest case imaginable for this Gallic rarity.

Anush Hovhannisyan © Vigen Mnoyan
Anush Hovhannisyan
© Vigen Mnoyan

Le Roi de Lahore was Massenet’s third opera and it offered his first great Parisian success, premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1877. Its plot is a convoluted piece of oriental hokum, concerning Alim, King of Lahore, and his secret love for the priestess Sitâ. However, Sitâ’s uncle, Scindia (the king’s minister) also desires her and when he discovers the king stands in his way, he kills Alim on the battlefield and declares himself king. The end? Hardly. Things take a bizarre twist in Act III where we follow Alim into Paradise, where he begs the deity Indra to be allowed to return to earth to be with Sitâ once again. Indra concedes, but with two conditions: he will no longer be a king, but a humble commoner; and whether Sitâ proves faithful to him or not, they must die a single death. Scindia, new King of Lahore, is bent on making Sitâ his queen. She escapes to the sanctuary of the temple, where she is reunited with Alim. Confronted by guards, she stabs herself rather than fall in Scindia’s clutches, and she and Alim die together as Scindia prostrates himself in terror.

It’s bloodcurdling stuff and Balsadonna and the COG orchestra threw the kitchen sink at the score. Massenet gives some of his finest melodies to the orchestra, with plenty of exotic colouring. The overture was played with real punch to a brass section fielding a cimbasso that gave it added muscle. Balsadonna rarely reined the orchestra back – the head of steam they built up at the climax of Act IV, where Scindia condemns Alim was decibel-tastic. Most of the Act III ballet divertissement was retained, including a lovely interlude for saxophones and a ‘mélodie hindoue’ featuring a very fine solo by flautist Ben Pateman. The quality of this orchestra can be variable, but I’ve never heard them on such terrific form as this. The Chorus, apart from some occasional insecure intonation, pulled together well and sang with gusto.

To have secured the services of Michael Spyres was a real coup. As recent London performances have demonstrated, he is fast becoming the ‘go to’ tenor for rare French repertoire. There’s an ease to his top notes which is thrilling to hear, whilst his lower register is rich and full. He delivered Alim’s Act IV aria, where he anticipates seeing Sitâ once again, superbly, even ringing out above the enthusiastic brass section.

William Dazeley ably took the role of the slippery minister, Scindia, who commits regicide then grabs the crown for himself. He doesn’t have the biggest baritone instrument and it was sometimes a little dry, but it is very beautifully coloured and shaped. His arioso as he dreams of wedded bliss to Sitâ provided another of the evening’s many highlights.

Jette Parker Young Artists past and present made up a good deal of the rest of the cast. Anush Hovhannisyan, currently on its roster, was a splendid Sitâ. After a slightly nervous start, where she approached high notes tentatively, her soprano blossomed. She has a lovely warm, open tone, with a smoky lower register. Her big solo comes in Act V, having fled the bridal chamber for the temple, and she sang this with confidence and dramatic urgency.

Justina Gringyte took the trousers role of Kaled, the king’s servant. Her rich mezzo has a zesty tang and she made the most of the little serenade sung to Sitâ in Act II. The fast vibrato to Jihoon Kim’s bass isn’t completely to my taste, but there’s no doubting the sepulchral blackness to his voice and he sang the role of Timour, the high priest, with great authority. Joshua Bloom, stepping in for an indisposed Robert Lloyd, sang firmly in the brief role of Indra, the deity who grants Alim his wish to return to earth.

I recall Balsadonna conducted the fine production of Don Quichotte at Grange Park Opera, a work he also led with COG. With this thrilling Roi de Lahore under his belt, let us fervently hope for further Massenet rarities soon.