The opera "Lalla Roukh" offers some warmth right in the midst of the winter doldrums. The comedic two-act opera, composed by Felicien David in 1862, tells the love story of Mughal princess Lalla-Roukh, and Nourreddin, a mysterious singer, who joins her caravan as she prepares to marry the King of Samarkand.
The play was first performed by Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart in Paris. Now, Washington, D.C.-based Opera Lafayette brings this fanciful love story to the Kennedy Center for its debut performance.
There isn’t a moment of sorrow or solemnity in this play, complete with candy-colored costumes by Indian fashion designer Poonam Bhagat and upbeat dance numbers by Maryland-based dance troupe Kalanidhi Dance. The story, in French with English subtitles, mixes whimsy, bawdiness and idealistic images of romance.
Lalla-Rookh, the daughter of the Mughal emperor, is forced to decide whether to pursue her love with a penniless singer-poet or fulfill her royal destiny. Strong-willed and idealistic, she makes it an easy choice, as she unwaveringly pursues the notion of true love over financial support. Marianne Fiset plays her as steadfast and confident. She is both proud and daring as she faces the chance that her infidelity will cost her everything.
Her lover (Emiliano Gonzalez Toro) doesn’t quite command the stage with equal bearing, and seems a little soft-spoken at times. He is likable in the romantic lead but at the same time is easily upstaged by his partner.
While the romance between Lalla Roukh and Nourreddin is the center of the story, the play keeps its tone light and celebratory through the comic relief of baritone Bernard Deletré as Baskir, who is sent by the King of Bukhara to accompany his betrothed on the road from Delhi to Samarkand. He is seduced and teased by soprano Nathalie Paulin, as Lalla Roukh’s maidservant Mirza.
Bashir’s comic cynicism makes the story truly refreshing and breaks the mold for most operas when he pragmatically tries to make a deal with Nourreddin to lie about the love affair, thereby covering everyone else’s backs.
Deletré, who is also the play’s director, nails this part, moving across the stage with equal parts frustration and exuberance. He is the fast-talking soul of the story. His antics keep the story free from saccharine sentimentality.
Bashir’s goofy practicality is the perfect foil to the romantic love and polite twist that allows Lalla-Rookh to have her cake and eat it too, when Nourreddin reveals himself as her fiancée the King, in disguise.