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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful opera, impressively staged and sung, 2 Jun 2012
This review is from: Delibes: Lakme (Sydney Opera House) (Emma Matthews/ Aldo Di Toro/ Stephen Bennett/ Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/ Roger Hodgman/ Emmanuel Joel-Hornak) (Opera Australia: OPOZ56021BD) [Blu-ray] [2012][Region Free] [2013] (Blu-ray)
There's a line in Act III of Delibes' Lakmé, when British soldier Gérald is being nursed back to health by Lakmé the beautiful daughter of the Brahmin priest who has attempted to kill him, Gérald awakening to the sounds and the vivid beauty of the world around him that has been heightened by his love for Lakmé, which he describes it being like a caress passing over you. In that phrase you have a summation of everything that Delibes achieves through the lushness of the scoring for the opera, the brilliance and enchantment of the melody and the sheer enveloping beauty and romanticism with which it captures the exoticism of its impossible love story between two people of very different cultures that goes against the prevailing attitudes in an India under British rule in the 1800s.

Léo Delibes is better known now for his ballets than his opera work, with Coppélia and Sylvia still frequently performed as repertory standards, but although Delibes achieved considerable success with his opera compositions, only Lakmé (1883) has made an enduring impression, principally on account of the exquisite 'Flower Song' duet for sopranos (which frequently turns up in television advertisements, most notably some years ago for British Airways), and for the challenging showpiece 'Bell Aria' which allows a coloratura soprano to demonstrate her virtuosity, but it rare to see the work performed in its entirety. There are similarities in Lakmé's clash of cultures romance story with Puccini's later Madama Butterfly, and the musical approach is similar in how it captures that irresistible lure of the exotic, and the conclusion is similarly tragic for the innocent Eastern native whose purity of feeling is unable to coexist with the rather different notions of love, duty and tradition from the western perspective. Quite why Lakmé isn't as popular as Madama Butterfly then is something of a mystery. I'm not sure if that's because the work is now considered old-fashioned, or because it has other singing and acting challenges beyond those famous arias that demand a soprano of extraordinarily high quality, but thankfully Opera Australia had the astonishing Emma Matthews on hand for this revival of their exquisite 2006 production for the Sydney Opera House that reveals the full beauty of the work.

In every respect this is a wonderful production that trusts that the opera is strong enough to work on its own terms, in a traditional period staging, without needing any clever concepts to make it accessible to a modern audience. Everything however is put into the costumes, the sets, the colour and the warm lighting with its subtle shading, Mark Thompson's set designs for the Indian jungles and temples strongly evoking the paintings of Henri Rousseau, finding in their bold colours and lush idealised imagery the perfect expression of Delibes' gorgeous melodies and romantic situations. It's also sung and acted with complete conviction by an exceptionally strong cast. Emma Matthews is most impressive in the hugely demanding singing role of Lakmé, the singing performance flawlessly delivered. Her Flower Song duet with Dominica Matthews' Mallika is perfect, and her handling of the coloratura throughout is exemplary, but it's a performance that works on much more than a purely technical level with a brightness and warmth of tone in her delivery that matches her character's temperament and purity. Gérald is also very well performed by Aldo Di Toro, but it's even better that there seems to be genuine chemistry between the performers and a harmony of voices that, when caught up in the sweep of the melodies and the beauty of the stage setting, makes it their story all the more involving and believable.
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