Everything You Expect from an Opera (but didn’t think happened outside of cartoons): “Lakmé”

Presented by Lowell House Opera
Written by Léo Delibes
Music Direction by Lidiya Yankovskaya
Directed by Roxanna Myhrum

March 26th – April 5th
Lowell House Opera, Harvard University
10 Holyoke Place, Cambridge MA
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Cambridge) This production touts that it is the first time Lakmé has been produced in Boston since 1914.  After seeing the show, I can understand why.

It’s not that the performers were untalented.  They were extremely gifted vocally, and well-cast in terms of vocal coloring.  It’s not that the orchestra lacked variety or pizzazz.  The music was incredibly lyric and (despite a few long mid-show re-tuning sessions) extremely professional. 

In all actuality and honesty, this content simply doesn’t lend itself well to a modern production for a twenty-first century audience.

On my way out of the theatre, I overheard an audience member making a comment which I feel best summarizes the major issues: “it’s like they took everything that they thought should be in an opera and put it onstage”.  Lakmé is everything stereotypical about the operatic genre mish-mashed together: the boring ingénue, the overbearing father, the sordid love interest, the third-act suicide and subsequent death in the lover’s arms, heck at one point the male lead even turned to the audience and shouted “DEATH!” with his arms outstretched.  I wanted this to be a satire, but there was no hint of self-awareness or at-the-audience winkage to be found.

So it was hard to sit through; but not for the reasons that you might think an opera staged (literally) in a dining hall might be.

Oh, yea, they converted a Harvard dining hall into a temporary theatre space.  Because of this, there was no sunken orchestra pit and the conductor was in full view of the audience at all times.  While simply fascinating to watch, this actually took away from the production because my eye was constantly drawn back to the conductor rather than the actors.

Poor direction is partially to blame for this.  The staging could have used much more love than it got.  While the musical direction was obviously superb, the staging was mostly “stand here and sing this for a while” without any obvious connection to action, emotion, or other characters onstage.  This aesthetic didn’t help the dated operatic structure that haunted every moment of this production; a bit more sparkle in the staging might have helped to guide us away from thinking that we had actually been transported to the nineteenth century.

Additionally, and this will likely effect a small subset of viewers, the English subtitles for this production are simply awful. Not only are they extremely poor translations of the French lyrics, but they are also placed in such a way that it’s impossible to soft focus and read them while watching the actors onstage.  Subtitle placement is a constant challenge for opera (because, really, where are you going to put them so that everyone can see them but they don’t upstage the performance?), but this was a particularly bad example.  The screens were small and placed on tall poles at the downstage right and left corners.  This essentially forced an audience to constantly look at the lighting grid with no hope of also catching the onstage action.

Additionally, the pause between Acts II and III during which the audience was asked to remain seated was awkward and stilted.  House lights were left dimmed, the orchestra stopped playing, and the actors proceeded to engage in a two-minute scene change.  They sauntered across the stage, neatly rolling draperies and generally meandering through valuable moments of the audience’s time.  No one was certain what to do and so a dull murmur echoed through the hall as people attempted to pass the time with their friends and family rather than sit gawkily gazing at the fourth-wall-concession placed before us.  It was like trying not to watch someone undress in a large open room when the only source of light is a limelight spot focused dead on the aforementioned changer.  You try doing it sometime without feeling weird about it later.

To end this review on a slightly more positive note, the costumes were quite excellent.  They perfectly exhibited the play’s setting (both geographically and temporally).  They also gave a sense of individuality.  Amidst a notably large chorus, I could instantly tell which characters were leading players and which were townsfolk.  Characters retained their identities even when in disguise, and the color schemes were matching without being oppressive.  Simply put: that’s some elegant costuming.  Bravo on that front.

On the whole, I feel that this production displays incredible talent, poor direction, and obviously dated material.  I would not recommend it to an opera novice (as it really is, to an almost absurd degree, everything you’d expect to get out of an opera with literally no surprises).

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