Monday 2 March 2015

Blown away - Massenet's Le roi de Lahore from Chelsea Opera Group

Anush Hovhannisyan - © Vigen Mnoyan
Anush Hovhannisyan - © Vigen Mnoyan
Massenet Le roi de Lahore; Hovhannisyan, Spyres, Dazeley, cond: Balsadonna; Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 1 2015
Star rating: 5.0

First London performance for over a century Massenet's first major success and it certainly blew the cobwebs away

Jules Massenet's Le roi de Lahore was his first big operatic success. Premiered in Paris in 1877, it was the first new work to be performed at the newly rebuilt Paris Opera and went on to have significant international success before being overtaken by his later works and being left to one side. Apparently not performed in London since 1880 (!), Chelsea Opera Group's performance of the work on Sunday 1 March 2015 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was certainly of more than passing interest, particularly as they had assembled such a fine cast. Conducted by Renato Balsadonna, the cast included soprano Anush Hovhannisyan as Sita, and tenor Michael Spyres as Alim, the king of the title, plus Jihoon Kim, William Dazeley, Justina Gringyte and Joshua Bloom. Robert Lloyd was due to sing the role of the god Indra, but his illness meant that Joshua Bloom stood in and thus sang two roles.

The opera was specifically designed for the Paris Opera, and is a large-scale five-act work complete with a ballet in act three (including a duet for two saxophones). Chelsea Opera Group performed it discreetly cut and with the ballet trimmed to just three movements, bringing the running time to three hours (including interval). Massenet took full advantage of the resources the Paris Opera had to offer, so that the large orchestra included four horns, two trumpets, two cornet, three trombones and a cimbasso, with four percussion players and timpani.

The plot is a flimsy thing, which seems to be the bastard off-spring of Delibes' Lakme (1883) and Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles (1863). The king, Alim (Michael Spyres) loves Sita (Anush Hovhannisyan) a priestess of Indra but the evil Scindia (William Dazeley), who is minister to Alim, also loves Indra. Scindia is not best pleased to find Alim is loved by Sita, and Timour (Jihoon Kim), high priest of Indra, is not best pleased to find one of his priestesses in love. In expiation Alim goes off to war against the Muslim attackers, and is killed in battled by Scindia. In act three, Alim is in paradise (cue ballet sequence) and petitions the god Indra (Joshua Bloom) to be allowed to return to earth and to Sita. The request is granted but he must return as a begger. The opera ends with Alim and Sita reunited in death and entering paradise whilst Scindia feels the hand of god. (In case you are wondering, Indra conveniently blows the Muslim attackers away between acts two and three thus conveniently disposing of history).

Joan Sutherland (Sita), Ron Stevens (Alim) in Massenet’s La Roi de Lahore, 1977 © Stewart Reif
Joan Sutherland (Sita), Ron Stevens (Alim) in Massenet’s La Roi de Lahore, in Seattle in 1977 © Stewart Reif
The modern revival of the opera began with a centenary performance in Vancouver with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, and a subsequent recording. But from this, anyone expecting coloratura pyrotechnics and langorous perfumed exoticism would be disappointed. This was very much virile young man's music and Balsadonna launched the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra with brilliant verve in an account of the dramatic overture.

Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan is on the Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artists programme (and in fact a number of the cast were either on the programme or recent graduates). She has a lovely spinto-ish sounding voice, richly lyrical but with just a nice edge to it. And she knew how to use it, singing Massenet's gratefully fluid lines with a beautiful sense of line, but with that hint of edge to give them a little point. She brought out the character's sultry intensity, and in the two long scena's Massenet gives her we really heard how she combined musical intelligence with a strong sense of character and a superb feel for the shape of the music. Massenet needs to seduce without getting too saccharine, and Hovhannisyan got it just right, as well as looking every in the part too.

Michael Spyres in one of the pre-eminent voices in mid 19th century French music and it was a joy to hear his heroic yet focussed tones in this music. Tenors of this period had to be able to cope not only with the large orchestra, but with vocal lines which move. A performer needs stamina and flexibility, as well as a certain fearlessness in tessitura. Spyres had this in spades. His voice has quite a narrow focus, which is just right, and he clearly has a strong sympathy for the music. Alim is a character who is frankly just too good to be true. But Spyres brought out all his musical intelligence and it was simply wonderful just listening to him. He and Hovhannisyan combined in a lovely sympathetic manner in the duets. Here, it must be admitted that though Massenet's writing was always attractive and fluently melodic, none of his melodies were actually that memorable (you don't come out of the piece humming any of the music). But by the sheer urgency of their performance, Spyres and Hovhannisyan carried you away.

The beauty of William Dazeley's performance as the evil Scindia was that it was so sympathetic. An evil man, genuinely in love but thwarted Dazeley brought great feeling to the role and a vivid sense of theatricality. This was combined with a superb sense of style in this music. The high-baritone part clearly suited his voice and he gave us some ringing top notes and finely fluent high lying lines. His aria in act four when he looks forward to his marriage with Sita was a real highpoint.

None of the other roles are quite as significant, though the high priest Timour has a number of key interventions and Jihoon Kim brought a lovely sense of gravitas and a richly resonant yet supple voice to the role. Justina Gringyte as Kaled, the king's servant, was luxury casting, but Gringyte got one big solo. This was her lullaby to Sita in act two, an aria which Gringyte made one of the highlights and, like her performance in Massenet's Don Quichotte for Chelsea Opera Group, made you long to here her in a longer role in this repertoire (she has Carmen planned with ENO and Scottish Opera). Australian bass Joshua Bloom combined with aplomb, his intended role of an army chief in act four and the role of the god Indra in act three, making a highly dignified deity (we can hear more of Bloom later this year as he is the Pirate King in ENO's forthcoming Pirates of Penzance).

The chorus has a lot to do in this work, writing for the Paris Opera you could assume a big chorus and large scale ensemble scenes. Though some of the quieter moments lacked focus, the big moments certainly played to the Chelsea Opera Group's strengths and they grasped them with vigour.

Renato Balsadonna is clearly sympathetic to Massenet's music and drew a good sense of style from the singers and the orchestra. This was young man's music and, though highly sympathetic to the singers, Balsadonna did not hang around and the whole performance had a wonderful gusto. There were many lovely orchestral moments, the off-stage fanfares and battle scene and of course the ballet with the lovely saxophone solo moments. With such a large orchestra (all that brass, double woodwind and a big complement of strings), the orchestra made a fine noise and this was a very big, bold, vibrant performance. Admittedly, balance was not always ideal with the chorus, but it sounded fabulous.

Massenet's Le roi de Lahore is not his best work. His later operas are far more sophisticated, and his next opera Herodiade is far more successful as a large scale grand opera. But with a strong cast, Renato Balsadonna and Chelsea Opera Group gave a performance of the work which certainly blew the cobwebs off and carried everyone away.
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