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Opera Review: The Golden Road to Samarkand

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Opera Lafayette unearths Félicien David's Lalla Roukh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: The Golden Road to Samarkand

Exotic: the dancers of Kalanidhi brought color to the opera Laila-Roukh,
performed Thursday night at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater by Opera Lafayette.
Image © 2013 Kalanidhi Kuchupuru Dance Troupe.

The annual Lincoln Center visits from Washington D.C.'s Opera Lafayette allow New York's opera lovers the chance to hear something exotic. Ryan Brown's company specializes in modestly scaled productions of lost classics. Their latest offering is Félicien David's 1862 opera-comique Lalla-Roukh. Although this work has vanished into obscurity in the last century, it was once among the most popular light operas in 19th century Paris.
To underline the exoticism of the setting, the performance opened with the Kalanidhi dance  troupe performing a brief two-part ballet to taped accompaniment, with jingling ankle-bells in the soft glow of blue lights. When the overture actually started, David's score proved to be a slice of "Indian" exoticism, leavened with humor and authentic French romantic melody. Although David's music fell out of favor with the rise of Wagnerism and the popularity of Massenet, a performance like this shows that a revival of interest is long overdue.
Lalla-Roukh is a perfect example of how imperial Europe saw the far East it had conquered. The story transports the classic boy-meets-girl scenario to the Silk Road, playing fast and loose with locations and history. (In case you're interested, the journey here starts in Kashmir and ends in Samarkand, a major trading point that is still a large city in present-day Uzbekistan.) David's music falls somewhere between Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio and Bizet's Carmen. In other words, this is a lightweight piece that is blessed with some good melodies.
As long as you don't take the libretto too seriously, this performance was a veritable banquet of voices. They were led by Marianne Fiset in the title role. This promising Canadian soprano makes her company debut in this production, and brings a lush, agile instrument and pliant tone to the spoiled princess. Ms. Fiset floored listeners at the Rose Theater with her two arias, drawing the viewer into the character's conflict between love and political duty and creating real chemistry with her leading man.
As Noureddin, the King of Bukhara who disguises himself as a balladeer, tenor Emliano Gonzalez Toro gave a performance that points forward to good things down the road. He played the young lover with a convincing, ardent delivery and a warm flood of tone, as long as he stayed in chest register. Above the stave, his voice thinned considerably. The great love duet "Charmante vallée, de fleurs étoilée" enchanted and seduced the ear. At the end of the show, the plain conviction in these two yong singers lets the listener forgive any clichés in the libretto and just enjoy the spectacle of two people falling in love.
Every love story needs an antagonist and in this case it is Seigneur Baskir, the king's scheming servant who is determined to separate the young lovers. Bernard Deletré (who also directed the show) proved a fine comic baritone, in a role that lies at the low end of the voice. His comic efforts to save his mistress for marriage drive the plot in the second half of the opera. Nathalie Paulin brought a pleasing mezzo sound to the role of  Mirza, Lalla-Roukh's servant and a distraction for the determined Baskir.
Opera Lafayette has survived by mastering the art of putting on shows with little in the way of window-dressing. Here, the show relies on Indian dancers (choreographed by Anuradha Nehru) to match the smoky perfumes of the score. Gorgeous costumes and props by Poonam Baghat evoked the Eastern exoticism of the setting, with spectacular costumes for Ms. Fiset and Ms. Paulin.

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