Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera at National Opera House, Wexford, on 30 October 2022
Tonight, the Paris Opéra-Comique arrived at the National Opera House. Like much else, Félicien David’s formerly much-loved Lalla-Roukh was swept aside by changing fashion, never to be seen again much beyond 1900. Bringing this particular work to Wexford, it helps that there’s also an Irish connection: its story comes from a once-popular epic poem by Thomas Moore, and so – far from the fabled Orient – the setting tonight takes as its starting point a smart tea shop somewhere in the 1960s. With wise-cracking introductions given by Narrator Lorcan Cranitch (as a droll voice of the streets), the world of the imagination really does open up from somewhere near and familiar.
The romantic storyline (the lovely Lalla-Roukh, on her way to marry a king, meets a handsome minstrel…) provides a starting-point for a series of songs, dances, and fabulous costumes. Director Orpha Phelan opens all the story-books and brings a profusion of fairytale and mythical characters to life, with sorceresses, banshees, the children of Lir, and anyone else you can think of into the chorus line, along with a company of dancers constantly assembling and re-assembling themselves. It is like a premature Christmas treat – part-pantomime, part-ballet, part-opera, Lalla-Roukh is an infectiously charming variety show that takes us back to the theatrical entertainments of old.
Conductor Steven White draws warm and colourful playing from the orchestra, as well as a cohesive sense of ensemble and direction from everyone above and below stage. Baritone Ben McAteer, proving his versatility once again, presents a comic tour-de-force as the self-conscious, defensive, yet all-too-easily distracted minister Baskir, supposedly guarding Lalla-Roukh (sung by Gabrielle Philiponet) from any misdemeanour. His opposite number in the story, Lalla-Roukh’s attendant Mirza, is sung superbly by Niamh O’Sullivan, showing once again why she is such an exciting singer to watch. She is a smart ensemble partner, while her one aria ‘Si vous ne savez plus charmer’ (‘If you can’t charm any more…’) is perfectly placed. Soprano Gabrielle Philiponet proves a brilliant protagonist, her character full of urgent energy and sung beautifully. As her romantic foil, tenor Pablo Bemsch (Noureddin) stands out, combining physical comedy with suavely elegant singing. The whole show is great fun, stylish and smart.
In its short season, Lalla-Roukh has already proved the Festival favourite, and it’s not hard to see or hear why tonight, with its catchy music and vivid staging. It receives enthusiastic applause from the full National Opera House, and certainly deserves to be seen much more widely.
The last performance of Lalla-Roukh is on November 4. For more information about Wexford Festival Opera, see wexfordopera.com
Pictures © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL