Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be caught dead at a performance of Leo Delibes’ Lakme, a silly opera with a ridiculously stereotyped 19th-century view of Indian culture. The music is pure syrup, though it can have a certain charm to it if the right coloratura is found for the lead. Given Chicago Opera Theater’s track record in these matters–two years ago they rescued Rossini’s Cinderella by finding a strong coloratura and assembling a crisp, fast-moving production–I thought I’d give the old girl another hear. I was grossly disappointed.

Coloratura Diana Walker enthusiastically subscribes to the Joan Sutherland school of diction, which is to say she swallows her consonants. So she might have been singing Sanskrit, though the rest of the opera was sung in English. Sutherland actually uses poor diction so that she can stretch out her vowel singing, which helps sustain the once-beautiful timbre of her voice; she consciously sacrifices intelligibility for sound. It’s a questionable choice, for hard, sharp consonants increase projection and focus, and provide a context.

Right from Lakme’s famous offstage entrance until her death in act three, Walker’s voice was decidedly under pitch, sometimes as much as a quarter tone off. The whole point of listening to a coloratura is to hear the daring intervallic leaps, bounds, and trills in that upper register. Hit them right, and it’s a very special experience of tension and release. Hit them off center, and there’s a spot in your brain that feels like it’s going to blow up.

Not that Walker isn’t capable of a pleasant timbre–she is. And not that she doesn’t have considerable technique. I was particularly impressed with her ability to use pure tone, then return to a tightly controlled vibrato when the vocal fireworks called for it. If she could jack up her pitch control and work on her diction, she could probably be a very fine coloratura. Her technique was often sorely lacking when it came to ornamentation and trills, and at times the famous “Bell Song” aria became an exercise in flat screeching. The one high E she did hit on pitch was cut off suddenly.

The other major aspect of this production that I had great difficulty with was the heavy-handed conducting of Fiora Contino, who is making her COT debut. It is a difficult challenge to get a homogeneous, full sound from the small COT orchestra, but it is done with great regularity. Contino could not. In addition, her tempi were much too slow and often kept the action dragging along mercilessly. Instrumental balances were also way off, and the woodwinds always hit you over the head when they played. Delibes is hardly what you call a subtle composer, and this way of handling his music sounds like playing in capital letters.

There were several things I was impressed with. Bass Paul Geiger turned in a powerful performance as Lakme’s Brahman father, singing with a full, rich tone and with considerable projection and excellent diction. Tenor Mark Thomsen as the British officer Gerald did a fine job, even if there was an occasional strain. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Sarkesian was also in good voice, although she found it very difficult to match up with Walker’s timbre and pitch in their famous act one duet. Most of the other singing, notably William Diana as Frederic, was quite respectable and effective. If some minor characters didn’t have the greatest voices, their acting ability usually compensated.

There was also much to take in visually. Wally Coberg’s sets of bamboo, stone, and greenery, and Renee Starr Liepins’s colorful costumes were stunning. David Gately’s direction was very effective, suffering mainly from the stodgy tempi coming from the pit. The act two ballet was entertaining, though it too was slow, again because of the music.

All of these things taken together cannot compensate for the glaring deficiencies, though I would love to see this same production with them corrected. COT has made an art of turning corny, frivolous operas into fresh and interesting ones. I’m sure that tradition will continue, despite this setback.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.