Monday 31 October 2022

Beyond Orientalism: Orpha Phelan's imaginative new production of Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh at Wexford Festival

David: Lalla-Roukh - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
David: Lalla-Roukh - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)

Félicien David: Lalla-Roukh; Gabrielle Philiponet, Pablo Bemsch, Ben McAteer, Niamh O'Sullivan, director: Orpha Phelan, conductor Steven White; Wexford Festival Opera at the National Opera House, Wexford
Reviewed 30 October 2022 (★★★★)

David's delightful Orientalist fantasy in an imaginative translocation with winning performances from an international cast

Wexford Festival Opera staged Félicien David's 1859 opera Herculaneum in 2016; the composer's only fully sung grand opera; his other four stage works were all written as opera comique with spoken dialogue.  As part of the 2022 Magic and Music season, Wexford Festival Opera staged Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh, written in 1862 for the Opéra Comique but having a local connection as the libretto is based on the eponymous poem by Irish poet Thomas Moore, whose mother was from Wexford.

We caught a performance on 30 October 2022 in the O'Reilly Theatre at the National Opera House, Wexford. Orpha Phelan directed, Steven White conducted, designs were by Madeleine Boyd, lighting by D M Wood, choreography by Amy Share-Kissiov. Gabrielle Philiponet was Lalla-Roukh, Pablo Bemsch was Nourreddin, Ben McAteer was Baskir, Niamh O'Sullivan was Mirza, plus Emyr Wyn Jones and Thomas D Hopkinson, and Lorcan Cranitch as the narrator.

David: Lalla-Roukh - Pablo Bemsch - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
David: Lalla-Roukh - Pablo Bemsch - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)

The opera was sung in Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas' original French whilst the original dialogue was replaced by new narration in rhyming couplets by Timothy Knapman.

The opera has two main obstacles to modern performance, the quantity of spoken dialogue and the Orientalist setting (Lalla-Roukh, the daughter of the Mughal emperor, is travelling to marry the King of Bukhara). The first was solved by having actor Lorcan Cranitch as narrator. 

David: Lalla-Roukh - Gabrielle Philiponet - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
David: Lalla-Roukh - Gabrielle Philiponet
Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
Though David had more right than most to write Eastern-inspired music, having travelled to the Middle East and Egypt, in truth the music of the opera is pure French lyric comedy, perhaps more Chabrier than Offenbach. Short of a full-scale reconstruction of a French 19th-century staging (which would be fascinating, but almost certainly beyond the festival's budget) it is difficult to know how to approach 19th century Orientalism in opera today. Phelan and Boyd took the imaginative decision to have the entire tale conjured by the narrator and set in a more generic fantasy land.

During the substantial overture we saw customers assembling at Lalla O'Rourke's Tea Emporium. A down-and-out (Lorcan Cranitch) appeared, rooted around in the waste bin and found, amongst other things, a story book. Reading this tale, he conjures it into existence, the fantasy characters first emerging into the tea shop and then the tea shop itself disappearing. All was done with remarkable economy, just Cranitch plus six soloists, the all-singing and all-dancing chorus and seven dancers.

Crantich would intervene periodically, freezing the action and filling us in on the story. Whilst the comic elements in his narration were a bit too distancing and at times almost made fun of the characters, overall, the staging successfully managed the tricky act of creating a narrated drama that was fully engaging. It helped that the principals were all strongly drawn.

Gabrielle Philiponet made a feisty Lalla-Roukh. No coloratura canary she, instead we had some lovely love-lorn arias showing her mellow middle registers, a determined sense of getting her own way (including wielding a sword for much of the evening) and a delightful tendency to say no. In all, Philiponet made a most appealing heroine, and one who seemed remarkably modern yet completely true to David's music. And lovely to have it sung by a native French speaker (the only one in the cast, alas).   

David: Lalla-Roukh - Ben McAteer, Pablo Bemsch - Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
David: Lalla-Roukh - Ben McAteer, Pablo Bemsch
Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
Pablo Bemsch was her love interest the minstrel Nourreddin (in fact her betrothed, the King of Bukhara in disguise). Bemsch created an appealing minstrel, full of character and not a little feisty himself. Musically, Bemsch's vibrant tenor seems more suited to the Italian repertoire and whilst his performance was enjoyable, it lacked the ideal lyric flexibility and fluidity in the upper register that this style of French music demands.

The two lovers had a lovely, and very substantial love scene towards the end of the first act, a moment or two when Philiponet and Bemsch really did created a sense of the air crackling between them.

As the King of Bukhara's minister Baskir, Ben McAteer trod the tricky line of creating a comic villain. McAteer's Baskir was delightfully idiotic, pompous and self-regarding, yet still held all the cards. Musically McAteer was a joy too, with lovely comic timing.

The quartet of leading characters was completed by Niamh O'Sullivan as Mirza, Lalla-Roukh's maid. Hers was delightful comic performance, her seduction of Baskir was done with a lovely knowing air and we rather regretted that O'Sullivan had only the one big aria. The cast was completed by two supernumeraries, Emyr Wyn Jones as Bakbara and Thomas D Hopkinson as Kaboul, who popped up regularly in comic fashion and made a fine comic double act.

Act One felt perhaps a trifle long, the plot told in too leisurely a manner, but the digressions were delightful including a ballet (entertainment whilst the company dined) and a danced chorus. Amy Share-Kissiov's lively choreography even managed to include a witty allusion to traditional Irish dancing.

David: Lalla-Roukh - Emyr Wyn Jones, Thomas D Hopkinson- Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
David: Lalla-Roukh - Emyr Wyn Jones, Thomas D Hopkinson
Wexford Festival Opera (Photo CLIVE BARDA ArenaPAL)
The chorus, dressed as all manner of mythical and semi-mythical creatures (designer Madeleine Boyd had obviously had great fun here), was hard working, singing and dancing on stage for much of the time and creating a vivid backdrop to the action, each singer clearly having fun creating their particular character whilst the choral sound was enjoyable too.

This is sophisticated music, as I said more Chabrier than Offenbach, a lyrical comedy with lots for the orchestra to do. And they did it with great style under Steven White's deft direction.

Lalla-Roukh will only ever be an occasional piece, but Orpha Phelan's production showed that with imagination and with winning performances, the French orientalist fantasy can work in other contexts.

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