Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Luna, Tessier and Bilgili in Stylishly Sung “Lakme” – Opera de Montreal, September 24, 2013

September 25th, 2013

Delibes’ “Lakme”, one of the most popular French operatic works of the late 19th century, has experienced a revival of interest in the 21st century. An elegant, beautifully costumed co-production was created in 2006 by the Opera of Southern Australia (based in Sydney and Melbourne) and the Opera de Montreal.

The production, first seen in Montreal in 2007, returned to Montreal with a cast led by Oregon soprano Audrey Luna as Lakme, Alberta tenor John Tessier as Gerald and Turkish-born Pennsylvania basso Burak Bilgili as Nilakantha.

Audrey Luna’s Lakme

Rising Star Audrey Luna, who starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Ades’ “The Tempest” and who performed the Queen of the Night in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2010 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” proved to be a sensation in the title role.

As required of a great Lakme, she showed mastery of the coloratura fireworks of the Air des Clochettes (Bell Song), and, for this role that is largely comprised of sustained legato singing, she sang expressively and affectingly, displaying both power and pianissimo.

[Below: Lakme (Audrey Luna) is disguised as an itinerant beggar; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


John Tessier’s Gerald

Few tenor roles have such a bounty of memorable melodies as Gerald. John Tessier possesses the leggiero lyric tenor voice for which this an ideal part.

I had been convinced of Tessier’s artistry as Laertes in the Ambroise Thomas 1868 opera loosely based on the Bard’s play [see Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]

For Gerald,  his youthful appearance helps create a believable portrait of an innocent, adolescent British officer,  as does his possession of a vocal technique that with seeming effortlessness exudes the passion of youthful love.

[Below: Lakme (Audrey Luna, left) vows to protect Gerald (John Tessier, right) from insurgent forces who have targeted him for death; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


Burak BIlgili’s NIlakantha

The artist in this cast with whom I’m most familiar is basso Burak Bilgili, who sang this role in the two Miami performances cited later in this review. Of active bassos, having performed the role with three different casts, he has to be considered North America’s reigning Nilikantha.

Bilgili’s is an authoritative portrait, who convincingly displays menace as he assembles a band to aid him in his (unsuccessful) attempt to murder Gerald, and displays affection to Lakme, the daughter he cherishes. Bilgili is memorable in this great French basso role.

[Below: Nilakantha (Burak Bilgili, center) expresses his anger at the presence of British forces in India;; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


See also my comments on Bilgili’s Zaccaria {Strassberger’s Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012} and his Ferrando (Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009).

Other Cast Members

“Lakme” contains a cluster of “British” characters, who like the gypsies Frasquita, Mercedes, Ramendado and Duncaire in Bizet’s “Carmen”, assemble for a lively Quintet. The British characters are the Parisian composer-librettist team’s parody of British attitudes towards the Raj that the British “possessed”.

Opera de Montreal casts Canadians in all the British roles. Besides Tessier, who hails from Edmonton in the Western plains, Quebec’s Dominique Cote proved an excellent Frederic with a winsome lyric baritone.

The three British women characters, none of whom possessed an iota of cultural competence, were well played and sung. Mrs Benson, the most vitriolic of the group was played  by Quebec native Rachele Tremblay. Her Quebecois colleague, Florie Valiequette, was Miss Ellen, and from neighboring Ontario, France Bellemare was Miss Rose.

[Below: a British party, consisting of, from left to right, Miss Ellen (Florie Valiequette, in yellow dress), Miss Rose (France Bellemare, in rose dress), Mistress Benson (Rachele Tremblay, in black dress), Gerald (John Tessier) and Frederic (Dominique Cote), invade the sacred grounds of a Hindu temple; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


Canadians played Hindus as well. Mallika was sung by Ontario soprano Emma Char, thus performing the duet Viens, Mallika with Luna’s Lakme, which in the 21st century has become the most famous passage in the score.

In what appears to be the smallest role, is Hadji, sung by Aaron Sheppard, the only Newfoundander/Labradorian in the cast. Yet, Hadji has an aria of his own that moves the plot forward, which Sheppard sang with emotion.

(One should never ignore the Hadji. The artist who sang the 2009 Miami performances was the now internationally sought after tenor, Rene Barbera.)

Other artistic observations

The production by Mark Thompson is brilliantly conceived. The stage direction by Alain Gauthier demonstrated that one can play the opera straight and it will move audiences.

The conductor, Emmanuel Plasson (son of Conductor Michel Plasson, who has championed the opera and conducted an important studio recording) gave a reverential reading.

(I regret the excision of the second act ballet, that was danced in the Miami performances and showed off Leo Delibes’ mastery of ballet, as well as of opera).

The Case for “Lakme”

Contemporary mountings of “Lakme” are still at a small fraction of the performance numbers that occurred between its Parisian premiere in 1883 and the 1940s, when it was one of the most performed French operas.

As an example confirming its disappearance from the North American opera company repertories, in San Francisco Opera’s first 28 seasons (1922 to 1949) “Lakme” was performed in five seasons, but neither Mozart’s “Magic Flute” nor “Cosi fan Tutte” had a single performance.

Since 1950, “Lakme” has not been performed at all at the San Francisco Opera, but “Magic Flute” has been mounted by the main company in 11 seasons and “Cosi fan Tutte” in 12.

Critics in the second half of the 20th century had been uncomfortable with this and other French operas with Asian or Near Eastern themes, labelling as “kitschy” all operas that display exoticism and that seem less intellectual or grounded than, say, Berg’s “Wozzeck”.

As a result, there have been so few performances in recent decades, especially in North America, that most critics have never seen it performed. (At a media reception in San Francisco in the previous week, one local opera critic hummed the famous theme from Viens, Mallika and told me that was the only thing he knew about the opera.)

[Below: Lakme (Audrey Luna, left) and Mallika (Emma Char, right) sing together before they go to gather lotus blossoms; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


Yet, there are strong reasons for artists, opera managements and opera-goers to take revivals of this work seriously.

I have outlined my thoughts on the opera in my reviews of previous performances that took place in 2008 and 2009. See Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008 and  Evelyn Pollock, Chad A. Johnson in Revelatory Florida Grand Opera “Lakme” – Miami, February 28, 2009 and Leah Partridge’s Splendid “Lakme” – Florida Grand Opera, Miami: February 27, 2009.

[Below: Nilakantha (Burak BIlgili, left, holding staff) and Lakme (Audrey Luna, center right, standing) disguise themselves as itinerant beggars; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]


I invite the reader interested in knowing more about this opera to read these reviews in order, but some of my points in those essays are summarized here:

“Lakme” is one of the most melodious and poetic of operas. Its requirements for lighter, more flexible voices fit the vocal styles for which so many excellent artists of our present day are trained.

Another Parisian opera that explored exoticism and Orientalism – Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers [Les Pecheurs de Perles]” – has become more popular with audiences (and managements seeking operas that are rather less expensive to produce and that become audience favorites) than it ever was in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Lakme” resonates with the audiences of today – those who get to see it. The opera is a Romeo and Juliet “teenagers in love” story with the twist that the lovestruck pair are from different (and mutually hostile) cultures.

[Below: Gerald (John Tessier, left) has taken part in a Hindu ritual that binds him eternally to the dying Lakme (Audrey Luna, right); edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]



I recommend this production and cast of a great French opera without reservation. Any opera goer with the opportunity to obtain tickets to and attend the remaining performances in this run should do so.


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