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Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Le Roi de Lahore (1877)
Giuseppe Gipali (tenor) – Alim; Ana Maria Sánchez (soprano) – Sitâ; Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone) – Scindia; Federico Sacchi (bass) – Indra; Cristina Sogmaister (mezzo) – Kaled; Riccardo Zanellato (bass) – Timour; Carlo Agostini (baritone) – Un capo
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice di Venezia/Marcello Viotti
rec. live, Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, December 2004
Directed: Arnaud Bernard;
Sets: Alessandro Camera;
Costumes: Carla Ricotti;
Choreography: Gianni Santucci;
Lighting: Vinicio Cheli
Directed for Video: Tiziano Mancini
Sound: Digital DTS Surround; Dolby Digital; Linear PCM 2.0; Picture Format: 16:9
DYNAMIC 33487 [2 DVDs: 160:00]


We are in India at the time of Sultan Mahmud’s attack in the 11th century. Scindia, minister to the King of Lahore, is in love with the priestess Sitâ. He asks the High Priest Timour to set her free from the vows that tie her to the holy Gods. Her request is refused. Scindia knows that Sitâ has secret nightly meetings with a man. She admits  this. She refuses to accept Scindia’s love and he takes revenge by condemning her in public. Sitâ’s lover turns out to be the King himself, Alim, and he has to redeem his crime by fighting against the attacking muslims.

In the second act a battle rages off-stage. Scindia announces that the army has been defeated and that the King has been mortally wounded – a God-sent punishment for his sinfulness. Scindia usurps the throne and Alim dies, while Sitâ vows to love him forever.

For the third act we are transported to the Garden of the Blessed Spirits in Indra’s paradise. When Alim arrives the God is so moved by his story that he grants him return to life. The only condition is that Alim shall no longer be king but a common man and that he is going to die at the same moment as Sitâ, his beloved.

Back to Lahore in the fourth act Alim wakes outside the palace. It is the day of Scindia’s coronation and Alim tries to kill Scindia for his treachery but has to flee when Scindia singles him out as an impostor.

In the last act which takes place in the Temple of Indra Alim finds Sitâ. She has escaped from the wedding apartment in which she has been confined. Scindia finds them and Sitâ takes her life. Alim dies at the same time, as the gods had decided.

This is the plot on which Massenet based his breakthrough opera Le Roi de Lahore. There was a market for exoticism and orientalism during the last decades of the 19th century. Bizet wrote Djamileh a few years later and Delibes had a great success with Lakmé some years after that. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado belongs here and even Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Dalila could be included. Massenet’s work can be seen as a counterpart to the Grand Operas of Halévy and Meyerbeer, a genre to which Verdi’s Don Carlos has a relationship. That’s the recipe: five acts, some meaty parts for all five voice types, plenty of scope for the chorus and a long ballet sequence in the third act. Of course there are some orientalisms in the music but basically it is very French. The music is sweet in a typical Massenet manner, richly orchestrated and with good singable tunes. There are some longueurs but in the main it is a gorgeous score that points forward to the more mature Manon and Werther. There is always the danger that a conductor gets so absorbed in the beauty of the music that it becomes treacly. However Marcello Viotti has the drive and unsentimental approach to avoid those obvious pitfalls. He is excellently served by the Fenice Orchestra and the chorus are more homogenous than in the recent Pia de’ Tolomei from the same source - reviewed here recently. I should add that Viotti died just a couple of months after these performances and it is to his memory that these DVDs are dedicated.

The production is lavish with sets designed in a kind of Thousand and One Nights style with evocative lighting and a magical atmosphere. In the third act with its extended ballet in Indra’s paradise there is a swarm of people on stage. Indra rides a full-size elephant – not a live one though. To underline the sense of unreality there are some anachronisms: a stagehand raising a ladder to fix a faulty light bulb, a photographer taking photos with flashlight and a man in turn-of-the-century dress winding a film projector. The dancing is brilliant but the ballet music is to a large extent less than inspirational. Some of the acting seems a bit too theatrical with over-the-top gestures but this sits well with the fairytale sets.

The singing, on the other hand, is mostly excellent. Vladimir Stoyanov in the role as the treacherous Scindia sports a good lyric baritone. He sings extremely well, too beautifully, one might think, for such a mean character. As an actor he is more ordinary. This also goes for Giuseppe Gipali as Alim. He sings with warmth and intensity and his voice is also basically lyrical. His long solo in act IV, when he has returned to life from Indra’s paradise, is one of the real high-spots. Even more impressive is Ana Maria Sánchez as Sitâ. Hers is a large, dramatic voice with thrilling top and also the ability to fine down to ravishing pianissimos.

In the lesser parts we find Cristina Sogmaister as Kaled. Her well-focused mezzo-soprano is a pleasure to hear. She has a good aria in act II and before that joins Sánchez in a beautiful duet, comparable to the celebrated duet for two female voices in Lakmé. Riccardo Zanellato as Timour has a rounded and voluminous bass, slightly woolly to begin with but he improves. The other bass part, Indra, is taken by the black-voiced and expressive Federico Sacchi, who impresses greatly.

Opportunities to hear – and see – this opera are few and far between. Joan Sutherland sang it and also recorded it during her heyday. That Decca set is available at mid-price and with a supporting cast including Huguette Tourangeau, James Morris, Sherrill Milnes, Luis Lima, and Nicolai Ghiaurov it is a tempting proposition. This new set, with its less starry cast, is also highly attractive and the visual elements are so important that I believe many opera enthusiasts would prefer the DVD version. It comes with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French or Spanish.

Evocative sets, good singing and partly gorgeous music makes this a good buy for those interested in late 19th century romantic exoticism.

Göran Forsling 




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