Tulsa Opera's Lakmé stays with you. It is a ghost that hovers and sings, bodiless, our sins.
It is not a typical opera. Though it contains a conventional love plot, it is not about romance. Lakmé indicts abuse of power, whether such power be over an entire occupied nation or over a single conquered woman.
In traditional romantic narratives, a woman must be tamed, and the man powerful enough to tame her will possess her in the end. This imbalance implies a willful sexism on the artist's part, but it is a sexism with that many male and female readers have shared complicity throughout the course of literary history. Therefore most critics recognize the inequality inherent in conventional romance as merely generic.
In Lakmé, however, this inequality separates an occupying soldier and the native woman whose country he occupies, rendering his victory over her indefensible.
It is in this light we must consider the theatrical success of Sarah Coburn, who makes her Tulsa Opera debut as Lakmé.
Before we meet Lakmé herself we meet her father, the broadly voiced priest Nilakantha (Marcus DeLoach), who sings of his daughter's holy lineage. She then emerges from the temple, praising the gods with elegant, ritualistic gesture and song. Mallika (Priti Gandhi), her attendant and friend, later calls her "ever-secretive." These details establish Lakmé's exotic mystique. However, as soon as her father leaves the temple grounds, she and Mallika engage in light, girlish banter. Despite the holy mystery that infuses her person, Lakmé is at heart a young girl with simple, pastoral dreams. Even while entertaining those dreams, though, she bears her heavy religious duty with quiet dignity.
Coburn has plumbed her character's depths, and her voice echoes from out of that journey. When Lakmé becomes worried about her father in his absence, Coburn does not merely show us her concern. She first becomes concerned, then sings through that emotion.
In opera, it is conventional wisdom that a good singer is preferable to a good actor, but when the two virtues coincide in a single performer it is so much the better. Coburn has access to an honesty which gives wings to her technical vocal talent.
Coburn's emotional immediacy reaches its dramatic peak during "Air des Clochettes" (or "The Bell Song"). Her father has commanded her to sing in order to lure into a trap the British soldier Gérald (Eric Margiore), who has defiled temple grounds. Lakmé has fallen in love with the young soldier, yet must sing.
She does not yet have the courage to rebel against her father. Neither does she believe the trick will work. Therefore she sings with passion and joy the song of a woman lost in the woods, who will encounter danger there but whose faith and purity will save her. The symbol of these virtues is a wand of bells, which Lakmé's guardian Hadji (Steven Walz) produces and plays. "Play" is the correct word. When Lakmé sings, Hadji spins the bells. It is as if they are playing a children's call-and-answer game, and they take great delight in it.
The trick does not succeeded in summoning the soldier, but their playing--and her alluring voice--attract a large crowd. Nilakantha commands his daughter to sing again. Now she becomes frightened. She cannot refuse, and now that she has attracted such an audience, she fears the soldier will come this time. She sings the same song, but though the words have not changed the song is no longer about fantasy and playfulness; it is a lament for a woman lost to the dark dangers of the wilderness. She becomes the instrument of her own love's destruction, and she breaks hearts with her voice.
Love bewilders in Lakmé, but none so deeply as Lakmé herself. Gérald, her lover, is a dreamer like her, but his dreams are idle, flippant fancies while hers are those of child-like innocence and compassion. Gérald is a man who has loved; he is engaged to another woman. Lakmé has been sequestered from suitors by her devout father. For any man to seek her affection is, according to Nilakantha, a sacrilege. She has not known passionate love.
Gérald opens her eyes to the mysteries of such love, but to him she is only another conquest. He is neither a soldier nor a lover; he is a child playing these roles. When he makes himself known to her, he pops out from a hiding place, grinning from ear to ear. She cries out, terrified by his trespass, but thwarts his capture out of pity. He clearly doesn't know the gravity of the crime he has committed. Once alone, he seduces her with facility. Like a native introduced to an alien virus, she does not have--cannot have--defenses with which to resist him.
Destruction follows wherever he goes. He and his shrill, giggling cohorts break into the temple garden by force, out of irreverent curiosity--a dramatic contrast to the awe-inspiring joy of Lakmé's and Mallika's "No. 2 Duetto" (commonly called "The Flower Duet"). He later upsets his fellow soldier by threatening to desert; he casts aside his fiancée. He interrupts a ceremony for a Hindu god by charging through its path, trampling the petals the celebrants have strewn. Finally, his carelessness results in Lakmé's death.
It's not entirely Gérald's fault. The opera has not been written with a sympathetic eye to the British. (It is, after all, a French opera.) He is at times a mere product of British imperialism but at other times a figurehead of its destruction and racism.
Frédéric, Gérald's fellow soldier, claims the Indians are "carried away by love without law or reason," which is essentially an Anglocentric way of saying, "These savages certainly have a hard time controlling themselves."
As an aside, Frédéric keeps the subject of his criticism vague in order to jab both at the Indians and at the giddy-headed young British women who have accompanied the soldiers into the temple grounds. He aims the insult at both women and Indians, and thus doubly at Lakmé herself. Ironically, Lakmé would not have succumbed to Gérald's seductions if the British had not invaded and occupied India in the first place. It is British imperialism that denies the Indians free access to their law and reason--their self-governance.
Gérald himself is no master of his reason. After his friends leave the garden, he remains to sketch a bauble for his fiancée. He sings of his idle dreams, and of his inability to rein in those dreams. He deems his dreaming a vice, yet he cannot refrain from indulging in it.
His seduction of Lakmé is equally unrestrained and impulsive. He praises her and condescends to her in the same breath. Though he has the disposition of an adolescent, he treats her like a child. He even says she has the "look of a child" and that she possesses an "innocent grace." She tries to tell him that she is a sacred priestess but he laughs at her.
This isn't love. It's a lark. He does not fear retribution because none of these Indians is real to him. Her gods' divine wrath, her father's priestly vengeance, her land's laws and boundaries are all a joke to him. When Frédéric appears in the final act to tell him their regiment has been reassigned, he relents almost without argument. This has all been a game to him, and now that it is time for dinner he is taking his ball and he is going home.
Why does she succumb to him, then? Why don't this insolent foreigner's words fill her with righteous anger as they do her father? Because we, like Lakmé, find Nilakantha's wrath repellant. His faith too easily becomes an excuse for and defense of his hatred. Lakmé is as religious as her father, but for her the gods are a source of beauty and love. In short, Gérald speaks her language. Unfortunately for her, his words are empty.
"This is a dream," he tells her later, "a madness that will pass away and vanish."
This is the context in which we must consider Coburn's success. If there were no other reason (yet there are so many!) than her voice Tulsa Opera's Lakmé would still be a mandatory production Coburn's voice is not merely pretty. Even her ease with coloratura does not simply ornament the music. She uses it to express Lakmé's playfulness and appreciation for beauty. We know Lakmé through her voice, and it follows us out of the theater and into the night. It takes us out of ourselves, and everyone able to attend this opera has the privilege and obligation to go.
Lakmé continues in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St., February 29 at 7:30pm, and on March 2 at 2:30pm. Tickets are $20-$95. For information, go to www.tulsapac.com.
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