'Lakme': only the thrill is profound


She's a first cousin to Madame Butterfly; they're both exotic Easterners who commit suicide over a Westerner with some annoying notions about duty.

She's a second cousin, once removed, to Carmen; they both have to put up with a boyfriend in the military who feels drawn to the call of the barracks at inopportune moments.

And she's even distantly related to Norma; they both are priestesses of ancient religions who incur their fathers' wrath by allowing a non-believer into their sacred domain.

She's Lakme, and she's one of the most charming members of the great big, crazy family called opera.

Lakme -- as brought to life in the opera of that name by French composer Leo Delibes -- will make her belated debut here this week courtesy of the Baltimore Opera Company, an occasion being welcomed by fans of this once very popular work.

Lakme enjoyed a huge success at its premiere in 1883 at the Opera-Comique in Paris. It still is appreciated in France, though perhaps not as much as before. Except for a bit of a heyday at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1930s and '40s, thanks to French songbird Lily Pons, Lakme has remained on the fringes of the repertoire on these shores.

The neglect is unwarranted. The opera may have its share of what G.B. Shaw dismissed as "pretty nonsense," but it holds up remarkably well when approached with sincerity and imagination. Of course, a first-rate coloratura soprano doesn't hurt; the title role offers considerable challenges and opportunities for brilliant vocal display.

One such soprano was an American, Marie van Zandt. Her performances in Paris came to the attention of playwright Edmond Gondinet, who decided to write an opera libretto for her.

Gondinet's choice of a composer to provide the music was Delibes, whose fame rested primarily on his sparkling ballet scores Coppelia and Sylvia, masterpieces of that genre.

Although very much a star vehicle, Lakme is far from being a one-woman show. The opera presents a classic East-meets-West conflict, prettified, to be sure, but still theatrically strong. Delibes was no Bizet; his music does not have that pronounced a stamp of originality. But he knew his way around an infectious tune and an orchestra. The qualities that infuse his ballets (Tchaikovsky considered Sylvia better than his own Swan Lake) infuse Lakme -- melodic warmth, prismatic instrumentation.

Like Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which also swims in an exotic setting to the sounds of gorgeous music, Lakme falls gently on the ear, even when the action gets agitated. This is, above all, an opera about beauty -- Lakme's physical allure and the sanctity of the flower-rich, riparian realm in India, where the Brahmins honor their gods.

The orchestral prelude sets the tone -- a bold, syncopated drive giving way to a distinctly non-Western, almost ominous flute solo that lets us know all will not end happily.

Within a few minutes, we are introduced to Lakme and her servant Mallika, who sing the first of the opera's hit tunes, the "Flower Duet." You may remember it from its use in a British Air commercial years ago. If you aren't hooked on Lakme 10 seconds into this lilting duet, ask someone to check your pulse.

When a group of British arrive on the scene, Delibes captures their "foreign" status in music that is suddenly more like jaunty Offenbach. But one of those officers, Gerard, distances himself from the others; he finds India "a country of enchantment, where one may die by tasting a flower." When he subsequently catches sight of Lakme, that enchantment is complete.

Gerard's character is sympathetic from the start, even though he will be the cause of Lakme's death.

For her part, Lakme will be torn between newly unleashed feelings of passion and her own duty to father and religion. She even agrees to help Nilakantha get revenge on the unknown infidel who has invaded his sanctuary. The plan is for Lakme to sing in the market square where the British are sure to be. She offers the "Bell Song," the opera's most celebrated number, a tour de force complete with stratospheric high notes, trills and echo effects.

"Frequent bad performances" of that aria, writes opera scholar the Earl of Harewood, "should not influence opera lovers against it."

When Gerard reacts to the song, Nilakantha and his men stab him; Lakme secretly nurses Gerard back to health, only to realize that he can't really give up everything to stay with her. She then proves that, in her "country of enchantment," one really may die by tasting a flower. Gerard is distraught; her father decides things aren't so bad, since his daughter will now have eternal life.

Profound Lakme is not. Entrancing it is, driven by unpretentious music and an earnest belief in the beauty of love.

On stage

What: 'Lakme'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9, 8:15 p.m. Oct. 11, 3 p.m. Oct. 13

Tickets: $40 to $135

Call: 410-727-6000, www.baltimoreopera.com

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