Le Roi de Lahore, Dorset Opera Festival, Bryanston

MASSENET’S exotic and dramatic opera Le Roi de Lahore is rarely performed now, but the huge success of its opening at the Paris Opera in 1877 cemented the composer’s position as one of the most popular in Europe, and the work became a regular feature of operatic seasons.

When Rod Kennedy decided to stage it at Bryanston as part of the 2023 Dorset Opera Festival, it was a big project and a big risk – and it paid off richly. You can listen to opera on the radio or on disc, but there is nothing quite like the excited grandeur of a live performance, which depends on both the visual and vocal excellence of the entire company. Dorset Opera started its life in 1974 at Sherborne School, moving to Bryanston in 2005. It has always given local singers and young performers a chance to perform in grand opera, so the presence of a chorus is essential. The company chorus has never been better heard, or seen, than in Jules Massenet’s dramatic sub-continental confection.

Stewart J Charlesworth designed colourful and magnificent costumes for this extravagant oriental story of kings and high priests and gods, and his team of makers, including students at Arts University Bournemouth’s historical costumes MA course, did them proud. A powerful cast of soloists told the improbably complex story over five thrilling acts and the fine orchestra was again conducted by Jeremy Carnall with admirable precision and attack.

India’s only internationally recognised tenor Amar Muchhala joined the DO company to sing Alim (with great passion and tenderness), the titular king who has conducted a platonic courtship of the religious and virginal Sita in the temple where both worship for evening prayers. But unbeknown to her, she is also loved – and violently lusted after – by her uncle Scindia, who is one of Alim’s ministers. Against the backdrop of a lengthy and unsuccessful war, in which Alim is reluctant to lead his troops into battle, Scindia goes to the high priest Timour to ask for Sita’s hand. When it is refused, he reveals his niece’s sacrilegious “affair”. The horrified priest sentences the woman to death, and that’s not what Scindia wanted at all. She refuses to identify her mysterious suitor, but then Alim arrives and confesses, overriding Timour’s decision. Timour says he must atone for his sins by leading his army. Scindia is mortified … and all this happens in Act I, observed by the motionless God, Indra.

Alim returns form the war to enjoy his life with Sita, but is interrupted by the duplicitous Scindia and murdered. Scindia says the king was slain in battle and now he will be king and marry Sita. Alim goes to heaven, but rather than enjoy paradise he only wants to be reunited with Sita. Indra reluctantly allows him to go back to the world as a pauper, but says his “second’ life will be bounded by Sita’s life – when she dies, so will he.

As the vain and preening Scindia prepares for his coronation, he is confronted by a ragged man who looks and sounds just like the dead king. The cheering crowds are confused as Scindia orders guards to kill this “madman”. His life is saved by Timour, who is also a bit perplexed.

Sita, now queen and married to Scindia, decides she would rather die than go through a wedding night with the loathed new king, and so takes a knife to kill herself. As she plunges the dagger into her breast, so Alim also gasps his last, and Scindia is left to live with the consequences of his actions.

American baritone Michael Anthony McGee made an impressive Dorset debut as the evil Scindia, with Seljan Nasibli as the impassioned Sita, and local favourite Tim Bagley as Timour. Bass Julian Close was the sonorous and very still Indra, with Kezia Bienek as Alim’s faithful servant Kaled.

The production, directed by the Hampshire native and internationally in-demand Ella Marchment, was a triumphant event for all involved, and a persuasive reinforcement of prescience of risk-taking. The packed audience was as delighted as the company at the end of this fascinating and rewarding show, and looking forward to welcoming some of these new soloists back to Dorset in future seasons.



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