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