Lucky gym : OPERA

Lakme / Lucia Paris, France
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The Independent Culture
Of Paris's four opera houses, the Opera-Comique has chosen to concentrate on the 19th-century French repertoire, hence its magnificent revival of Lakme, which was premiered in this very building in 1883.

Delibes's opera was allegedly inspired by Le mariage de Loti (by "Pierre Loti", alias Julien Viaud); in fact, the only similarity between the two is that recurring 19th-century fantasy of a passionate affair between a European male and some dusky maiden willing to surrender - even to death: "Grand Dieu, elle meurt pour moi!" sings British army officer Gerald at the end of this particular version. (Loti's great love was Tahitian, but in the European mind the Orient stretched from Egypt to Japan, with theSouth Seas thrown in.)

Lakme takes place in India during the British Raj and, at its premiere, made something of a stir by showing people in contemporary dress. Here, the set designer, Jean-Noel Lavesvre, has aimed at a style redolent of travellers' watercolours of oriental scenes; the costumes (by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle) are 1880s for the Europeans, rather a hotchpotch for the natives. But Gilbert Blin, the director, has achieved a beautifully light and ironic tone, bringing a gently humorous touch to bear on that other fantasy - the British as seen through Gallic eyes.

Little known in Britain, apart from the famous "Bell Song" and the Act1 soprano duet recently hijacked by British Airways, Lakme boasts plenty of other wonderful music and a strong dramatic line. In this staging it was well served by rising star Natalie Dessay as Lakme, Marcus Jerome as Gerald and Jean-Philippe Courtis as Lakme's father, Nilakantha. Under Frederic Chaslin, the orchestra played superbly, bringing out the full glories of the score.

The Opera-Bastille, meanwhile, seems to be aiming - appropriately perhaps - at a more wildly revolutionary style. William Dudley's set for its new Lucia di Lammermoor - an army gym in which, at curtain-up, soldiers are seen doing frightfully butch thingsto the apparatus - certainly caused a wildly revolutionary uproar in the auditorium, with extended boos, catcalls and whistles.

The rear of the gym is a high semicircular wall, from which, for most of the opera, the chorus, in frock coats and stovepipe hats, looked on. Fair enough, I thought at first: Lucia is the innocent pawn in a brutal, warlike environment. There were hints that her infatuation with Edgardo stemmed from reading too many novels (by Sir Walter Scott?), and even in her first aria, when she got caught up in the climbing ropes, she already gave the impression of being a bit doolally. A radical new approach to a familiar work can shock us into seeing it afresh and lead to a deeper appreciation, but here Andrei Serban's basic concept soon became overloaded. He has tried to graft the brutal intensity and moral outrage of Wozzeck on to a very different plant, and filling the stage with moving pieces of giant Meccano or making Roberto Alagna (as Edgardo) climb to dizzy heights, failed to strengthen the concept.

Both Lakme and Lucia are forever associated with Joan Sutherland. Neither Dessay nor June Anderson as Lucia were quite up to the effortless fireworks of La Stupenda, but they were impressive runners-up.

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