A Night at the Opera: Lalla Roukh (36 cents)

Our friends Joel Brenner and Victoria Pope introduced us to Opera Lafayette several months ago, inviting us to a reception at their home where founder and conductor Ryan Brown introduced us to the company, and principals of the coming gave a short recital. That was enough for us to purchase tickets to their next Washington production, which turned out to be Felician David’s opera, Lalla Roukh.

Never heard of it? That would not be surprising because Lalla Roukh, introduced at Paris’ Opera Comique in 1862, and performed repeatedly throughout the remainder of the 19th century, went into hiding with the turn of the 20th century and has hardly been heard from since. In fact, according to Wikipedia, except for a concert production in 2008 by Opera Lafayette and a production in David’s hometown in Southern France, the opera has not been produced at all.

This is only somewhat surprising. Many older operas seem to disappear in favor of the standard, classical repertoire, and most are never rediscovered and, if rediscovered, never performed. It is somewhat surprising with respect to Lalla Roukh, because the music, although not sounding particularly complex, is beautiful.

It is also not surprising that Opera Lafayette was the company that gave Lalla Roukh its North American premier. This is what Opera Lafayette has been doing over the past fifteen years or so – putting on music, largely from the 16th and 17th centuries, and largely French, that have not been performed on a regular basis for many, many years.

I must admit that I had not heard of Felicien David, but he was a French composer of the 19th century who wrote both operas and instrumental music, and who was performed and admired widely. The story of the opera (which is set in Asia) comes from a long poem by, of all things, an Irish poet, Thomas Moore. The story is very straight forward. A princess from India is betrothed by her father to the young King of Samarkand (in current day Uzbekistan) and begins the long journey to her new home. On the way, she is serenaded by a vagabond singer (who had also previously appeared to sing to her in Delhi, her home), who cannot be persuaded by the princess’s chaperone (a comic figure) to depart. After much comic intrigue en route, with deception, drunken guards, and midnight rendezvous, the part arrives in Samarkand, only to have the princess discover that her troubadour is in fact the king himself, simply wanted to prove that she could love him for what he was, rather than for his title and wealth. Simple.

Ryan Brown conducted the mid-sized orchestra beautifully, the director Bernard Deletre also played Baskir, the chaperone, with comic perfection, and the entire cast, led by Marianne Fiset as the princess (Lalla Roukh) and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as the king/singer, were in fine voice. A special treat was the addition of the Kalanidhi Dancers from India who performed throughout the evening, including an added-on dance (with recorded Indian music) at the beginning of the opera to help set the scene. When David wrote the music in the middle of the 19th century, “the orient” was glorified in the French mind, and verisimilitude was not the order of the day, so this performance using an authentic Indian dance company (which by the way was very professional and enjoyable to watch) was a first for a production of Lalla Roukh, and blended in seamlessly. The sets were very simple – two tents, as would have been used on such a journey. That’s it. Otherwise, the stage was bare, and backed by a scrim, behind which a 16 person chorus sat and sang (until they were front stage during the final “all’s well that ends well” scene). The lack of scenery was not detrimental, and the tents set the visual mood, helped in no small amount by the costumes, which also were striking, and designed by Poonam Bhagat, an Indian fashion designer and poet.

A first class, professional performance, it was staged one night only at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater (which was filled to the brim), and is now on its way to New York, where again there will be one performance at the Lincoln Center.

Kudos to Ryan Brown and his Opera Lafayette, and thanks again to Joel and Victoria.


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