The Lowell House Opera Society has been producing opera since 1938, usually in the Lowell House dining room on a makeshift but entirely workable stage, and always with a small but full orchestra. You wouldn’t think it’s the ideal venue for opera, but the sound is quite intimate and direct, though the brass sforzandi were a bit overwhelming. And the LHO has progressed from entirely student-run productions to a workshop company for young local professional singers and players in which students still fill many if not most of the important roles. Over the years it brought forth premieres of new works like Randall Thompson’s Solomon and Balkis (1942) and John McIvor Perkins’s Divertimento (1958), and American first performances such as Honegger’s Les aventures du Roi Pausole (1959). Full disclosure: I myself owe Lowell House Opera a considerable debt. Almost entirely by accident, I was the conductor of the 1960 production of Menotti’s one-act comic opera The Old Maid and the Thief, my very first experience in directing an orchestra which became much amplified in later years.
Professor Diana Eck, Master of Lowell House, in introducing the opening-night performance on Wednesday, mentioned that this year’s production of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé was the first performance anywhere in the Boston area since 1914. A century seems like a long wait for an opera that audiences have always admired and that has been performed all over the world. One measure of its popularity is the typographed piano-vocal score in my own library, published (English only, without recitatives) by Oliver Ditson in Boston in 1883—the same year as the opera’s premiere.
The story, supposedly adapted from an autobiographical novel by Pierre Loti, features a curious mixture of fashionable post-Napoleonic orientalism and Wagnerian fantasy, with elements of Tristan-like potions (love and death drunk together), a military dilemma like that in Carmen (even with two piccolos), and a comic patter very much like H.M.S. Pinafore (1878). Stylized orientalism, certainly; but racism, no—it’s anti-racism if anything, of the “ugly American” variety, though Ellen, Gérald, and Frédéric are British. One remembers that the opera was first performed only a few months after Wagner’s death, just before the peak of his influence on younger French composers (delayed by anti-German reaction to the War of 1870). Massenet’s Manon, another story of lovers-in-hiding, would be premiered in 1884; but Bizet’s Les pêcheurs des perles, with its Indian setting, had been produced as early as 1863 (Delibes served as chorus master for that production). Some see a parallel with Madama Butterfly (1904), because Gérald supposedly abandons Lakmé in response to his duty as a soldier; but this is a false comparison, because Gérald really loves Lakmé, while Pinkerton only pretends to love Cio-Cio-San. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the librettists, who liked dangerous blossoms, had read Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” as well.
Delibes (1836-1891), who falls historically between Berlioz and Debussy, is hardly a forgotten composer, but Lakmé, considered his masterpiece in the genre, is the only one of his dozen or more operas that still commands performance. His two big ballets, Coppélia (1870) and Sylvie (1876), are still very popular. (Tchaikovsky, who heard Sylvie in Vienna, sighed with admiration, wishing that he could have written such a good piece; he had already written Swan Lake but not yet Sleeping Beauty. This tells you something about Delibes.) He’s not a great original; he’s very much of his time; he had been an indifferent student at the Conservatoire but he developed an impeccable technique, especially in orchestration. And, most important, he had a gift for melody, and the music of Lakmé is lovely throughout the opera. The opera is more lyric than dramatic; it has two famous numbers, the Flower Duet in Act I (a barcarolle; it even is used in a TV commercial, though I forget which one), and the Bell Song in Act II, which are superb, but there’s never a dull musical moment in the whole evening. The Wagnerian influence is basically in the realm of imaginative chromatic harmony that goes beyond Adolphe Adam, who was Delibes’s teacher, but is not as radical as the harmony that Lalo, Chabrier and Fauré were exploring at the same time, and there’s every indication that Debussy, 19 years old at the time and about to win the Prix de Rome, respected Lakmé; you can hear echoes in Printemps and l’Enfant prodigue. It’s easy enough to recognize the recurrent song melodies, but there’s nothing like a Wagnerian web of psychological-symphonic leitmotives in the orchestra such as Delibes’s contemporaries admired. Instead, there is a demonstrable architecture of keys. I point to just a few instances of significance: E major/minor that begins Act I, reappears in solemn moments with the chorus, and sustains Lakmé herself in her E minor aria in Act I and the Bell Song in Act II, and ends the Finale of Act II; this correlates with the dominant key, B major (Flower Duet), the duet of Lakmé and Gérald in Act II, and Gérald’s awakening in Act III; the dominant of B major, in turn, is F-sharp major, which anchors the opening chorus in Act I, and F-sharp minor, which ends the finales of both Acts I and III.
The performance at Lowell House was preceded by all the usual opening-night anxieties, including orchestra still in the middle of rehearsal as the audience was beginning to come in; but everything was swept away in the exhilaration of a well-prepared production. The split-level stage, with railings, was decorated with handsome roll-up panels and muted colors, more modern than nineteenth-century in their filigreed patterning, and this was impressive as the lights came up on the opening scene: a chorus of 23 singers, elegantly but not garishly costumed, seated in lotus position. For Act II, the Market scene (a forerunner of the Act II setting in La Bohème, 12 years later), the panels were vegetarian and just as colorful, nicely reflecting the hustle and bustle. (The Act II dances were omitted—to have included them would have been in the Opéra tradition, but the stage was doubtless too small for them, and they weren’t greatly missed.)
I was astounded as well as delighted by the high quality of the singing. Liv Redpath, a senior at Harvard majoring in English, sang the title role with complete control and fine expression, and her confident rendition of the famous “Bell Song,” a difficult coloratura aria reaching to high E, brought a prolonged and well-deserved ovation. Nathan Rodríguez, taking over the role of the aggrieved priest Nilakantha at short notice, was admirably stern with a fine vocal sound, and Garry McLinn did fairly as the naive British soldier Gérald. The critical supporting role of Mallika was ably handled by Heather Gallagher of the Boston Lyric Opera. Brian González sang the part of the servant Hadji, and Samuel Bowen sang Frédéric, Gérald’s annoying sidekick. I liked the three Englishwomen, too: Camille Crossot ‘16 (Miss Rose), Natalie Dewey (Miss Ellen), and Alexandra Dietrich as the elegantly ditzy Miss Bentson.
The orchestra numbered about 33 players, which meant a string group of about 5-5-5-4-2— I didn’t count them precisely. But even with this non-auditorium-sized group, the sound was remarkably full and rich, and only on a few momentary occasions did the lower brass overpower the texture. The only extra woodwinds I heard were the piccolos and an English horn (in one melody nicely doubling with clarinet). Dynamics, intonation, and general expression were very sensible throughout the evening, and the occasional slips were few and slight, a remarkable achievement for a group assembled from young professionals, amateurs, and community members like the Portsmouth orchestra I reviewed here earlier this week. Keeping all of these complex variables well-coordinated was the expert music director, Lidiya Yankovskaya, in her third Lowell House production; she conducted with complete assurance and suppleness, well-controlled stick technique, and close attention to the details of the score. She also wrote very good notes in the program booklet. Hats off to all these people, and to the stage director, Roxanna Myhrum, and the producer, Sam Moore.