L’Opéra de Montréal opened its 2013/14 season with a revival of Léo Delibes’ major operatic success, Lakmé. Rarely performed today, the story revolves around a romance between a colonial British officer, Gérald, and a Brahma priestess, Lakmé, in 19th-century India. The addition of Lakmé’s rebel father Nilakantha, who seeks to destroy the occupying Brits and, on a more personal level, kill the sacrilegious Gérald, could have spurred Delibes to introduce an element of social and political conflict into the intrigue, but Delibes chose to focus on the tale of doomed love.

John Tessier & Audrey Luna © Yves Renaud
John Tessier & Audrey Luna
© Yves Renaud

The opera was an instant success upon its creation in 1883 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and had already been performed 500 times at the theatre by 1909. A century later, the melodic charm and limpid orchestration of the work still appeal but its stilted, wordy and politically-incorrect libretto, as well as an almost total absence of internal dramatic contrasts and a static structure, have prematurely aged the piece – especially when compared with its two most famous predecessors; Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann (1880).

This co-production with Opera Australia, first seen in 2007, returned to Place des Arts – according to the company “by popular demand” – but did little to reinvigorate the work or restore its recent reputation as a piece best left to music history. Its large, naturalistic multi-coloured sets and brightly textured costumes seek to establish time and place in much the same way as Delibes’ music does, but to little effect. Director Alain Gauthier seemed content to operate within the confines of context and convention while accepting, even embracing the opera’s limitations, thereby reverting to guiding traffic on-stage in a fairly flowing and ordered fashion. Anne-Catherine Simard Deraspe’s lighting was more passenger than active participant in this conception, stubbornly refusing to upset the apple-cart or the prevailing neutral atmosphere.

Musically things were little better. Much as in the production of Faust he had conducted for l’Opéra de Montréal in 2012, Emmanuel Plasson’s idiosyncratic and often laboured conducting did little to establish either an internal pulse or sense of dramatic direction. If Nilakantha’s “Stances” or Gérald’s “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges” sacrificed phrasing and lyrical expression to speed of execution, all the opera’s duets lacked musical momentum and conviction. L’Orchestre Métropolitain in the pit were adequate at best, occasionally sounding under-rehearsed and uncoordinated.

Vocally, the star of the evening was the young American coloratura soprano Audrey Luna, who was making her company debut. Equal to every technical demand made of her, she possesses impressive vocal agility and extension, a silvery timbre and considerable power (especially at the top of her voice). Expressively she lacks vocal warmth, and sings with a limited palette of colours and dramatic contrasts, but is physically alluring and performs with intriguing musicality (most notably her innovative and winning phrasing in the famous “Flower duet” with Emma Char’s fine Mallika). Though the celebrated “Bell Song” was well delivered, Luna’s best singing came in the third-act “Berceuse” and the aria “Tu m’as donné”.

Her Gérald, tenor John Tessier, was musically irreproachable but dramatically a non-factor, and sang with a somewhat thin and reedy voice and in a vocal style more suited to Mozart than Delibes. Both his arias, “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges” and “Ah! Viens dans la forêt profonde”, felt like well-executed vocal exercises. Unlike several of his colleagues, his French was, for the most part, very fine. The same could not always be said of bass Burak Bilgili whose Nilakantha proved once more that the role is one conceived for a classic French baritone rather than a bass. He did however offer the only real dramatic presence on stage, albeit in a purely physical and one-dimensional portrayal. Gérald’s sidekick and fellow officer, Frédéric, who can be seen either as the opera’s insufferable comic relief or patronizing social conscience – or both – was portrayed by Dominique Côté, who is primarily regarded as an interpreter of operetta. He revealed an engaging presence and personality, and an overdriven light-lyric baritone. All the supporting roles, performed by native Québec or Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal singers (most notably the impressively musical Ellen of Florie Valiquette and France Bellemare’s promising Rose) were ably filled – which raised an important side-issue. For a company desperate to create and develop an effective image or “branding” and in a largely francophone city and province, what could have possibly compelled L’Opéra de Montréal to revive this marginal French work without a francophone or québécois singer in any of the leading roles?