Both operas on the 27th Spoleto Festival USA season had been eagerly anticipated by opera lovers. Léo Delibes’ Lakmé and George Frideric Handel’s Tamerlano are seldom staged. The latter is regarded as one of the great opera seria while the former is too readily dismissed as a vehicle for an almost instrument-like high soprano of the Lily Pons type. Neither opera’s director could resist the current fashion for up-dating the time of the action. These tinkerings varied as to success.

With strong singer-actors in every role, Director Charles Roubaud’s staging of Lakmé was a success across the board. The original setting for the opera, the early British Colonial period in India, was updated to the 1940s, just before partition. As it happened, this did little harm. There was the noisy intrusion of an automobile, but the essential, “ageless” Indian locations weren’t affected, and one adjusted to the more modern military uniforms. A forest of real bamboo, imported from China, formed the basic set for Brahmin priest Nilakantha’s sacred garden in Act I and for the idyllic jungle bower of Act III. Despite the brief defilement of the auto, discreet lighting, a mirrored surface and a native skiff on rollers proved perfect literally to carry off the Flower Duet. Whitewashed walls and adjoining alleys evoked the marketplace of Act II. The Set Designer was Bernard Arnould, the Costume Designer was Katia Duflot, and the stage lighting, particularly effective throughout, was by Vladimir Lukasevich. The subtle suggestion of shifting patterns of light filtered by the bamboo forest over the course of Act I was memorable.

Since her debut as Despina in last season’s Così fan tutte , the return of soprano Lyubov Petrova has been keenly anticipated. Her outstanding gifts as an actress are combined with a rock-solid vocal technique and a voice that defies easy categorization. A local Charleston critic, William Furtwangler, declared her to be “a dramatic soprano with a coloratura range.” I share his reasons for amazement if not his vocal taxonomy. Over the course of the opera, her voice proved capable of more subtle shadings to reflect Lakmé’s emotions than just the stratospheric instrument expected. All the high notes rang true and pure in the course of the Bell Song in Act II, which was a triumph. More subtle was my favorite, Act I’s “Flower Duet,” with its smooth blending of Petrova’s voice with the splendid mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, who sang Mallika. Petrova’s dying duet with tenor Fernando de la Mora was effective. Mora bought a good, even tenor voice with a fine head tone to the role of her British lover Gérald. With a tenor voice of his quality, the rewards of some of the lesser known music were revealed: the Act I aria “Prendre le dessin d’un bijou” and all three major duos with Lakmé. Baritone Alain Fondary was implacable as her father Nilakantha, the Brahmin priest and chief of local British Colonial Resistance. His voice was as firm as could have been desired and so deep and resonant that I thought he was a bass. Franco Pomponi brought a fine, even baritone to the role of Gérald’s friend Frédéric. Hoo-Ryoung Hwang brought a good evenly supported soprano to the role of Ellen, daughter of the British Governor. Mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak portrayed her friend Rose while mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema managed to act older and bring a comic touch to the role of Miss Bentson, Ellen’s governess. Tenor J. Austin Bitner had but a brief singing role as the sympathetic follower Hadji.

Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume contributed much to the surprisingly dramatic production. His well-drilled and enthusiastic young musicians in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra played with a marvelous sense of style. Villaume refused to get bogged down in the score’s orientalism – instead, he closely supported his singers and kept dramatic tension heightened throughout. Roubaud and Villaume found far more drama in the opera than I dared to expect. For once, Delibes received his full due.

Baroque operas have always been a challenge to present to modern audiences. In 1985, Spoleto USA presented a traditional staging of Handel’s great Ariodante with “Early Music Movement” vocal stars and original instruments in the pit (including UNC’s Brent Wissick). With last minute heavy cuts, it still ran past midnight with a far smaller audience than when it began. Clearly few modern audiences will sit still for a full run of recitatives and arias with their multiple repeats. “Creative” updatings, modern dress, etc., have never impressed me. In preparing for this season’s Tamerlano , I watched the DVD of the Händel-Festespiele Halle 2001 production directed by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Trevor Pinnock. All the visual glory of that production was in the resplendent period costumes, the sets being but stylized walls and a vintage throne. In a special feature, Miller – no slave to literal stagings – explained why updating a Handel opera seria to modern times would not work. He said that “the notion of relevance and modernity is a vice… of the Modern Theatre.” That production’s sets did no harm while much of its cast was inferior to the Charleston production.

Well, Chas Rader-Shieber, Stage Director of this year’s Spoleto production, and Set and Costume Designer David Zinn certainly proved Miller right! At the end of Act I, my friend turned to me and said “what a cheap and cheesy set!” He was too kind. The whole opera was dominated by more cheap metal bookshelves than I ever want to see again. Act I opened in the ravaged library of the conquered Turkish Sultan Bajazet. The shelving might have made sense there. However, over the course of the opera, the middle sections would “motor” back and forth to create cheap-looking spaces. A huge yellow dropcloth with bird prints remained a mystery to me. The most effective use of this unit was in Act III, when black plastic filled the empty shelves to suggest a prison. This set was far less impressive than the unit sets the old National Opera Company dragged about for years. It would have embarrassed an “Our Gang/ Little Rascals” cast in the 1930s and ’40s or a “Andy Hardy” movie crew. The costumes were a mixture of colorful, exotic raiment for the Sultan and his daughter and gray Western suits for those more “influenced by the West.” (Don’t ask me why.) The historical Tamerlano would have been very surprised to see himself arrayed in a gray suit and hence, a Westerner!

Tamerlano was saved by Handel’s wonderful music and some outstanding singing and acting. The rich and inventive score was stylishly conveyed by the Spoleto Festival Orchestra directed by specialist conductor Harry Bicket, who also played the harpsichord . The usual heavy drapery on the Dock Street Theatre pit banisters was removed. This allowed a fuller orchestra sound and – more importantly – allowed me to see the entrance and exit of the clarinet players. According to Trevor Pinnock, this opera is the first to make use of the then new instrument in Act II for Irene’s aria “Par che mi nasca in seno.” A search of the New Grove II online reveals a more complex story. In the article on the opera, Anthony Hicks asserts that “the indication of ‘cornetti’ in the autograph is almost certainly an error… ” making the opera “notable for the first use of clarinets.”

It was apt that much of the opera was dominated by the outstanding French countertenor Chistophe Dumaux, who had only made his professional debut in July 2002. Gifted with an easy, dominating stage presence, his countertenor voice is unusually even and well supported and projected throughout its range with perfect intonation and subtle control of dynamics. Dumaux’s Tamerlano had the Conqueror’s unflappable self-confidence and authority.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle brought a good voice and “male” body language to the thankless role of Prince Andronico, whom Winton Dean and J.M. Knapp, writing in Handel’s Operas 1704-1726, describe as “rather a sorry figure, a shuttlecock between the two camps.” “He” has to spend much of his time concealing his love for Asteria from Tamerlano, to whom he owes the return of his Greek kingdom. Much of the opera is a failure of the characters to communicate.

Soprano Robin Blitch Wiper brought an even soprano voice to the role of the long-suffering daughter of Sultan Bajazet, Asteria. Her music ranged from bemoaning her fate to wrath and contempt for the unwanted love of Tamerlano and doubts about Andronico’s love for her as well as filial love. Like her father, her conqueror’s low birth is another added factor in her feelings of revulsion toward him.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley brought humor as well as relief from gloom to her role as the jilted finance of Tamerlano, Irene, Princess of Trebizond, a real survivor ever after her own goals. Her splendid acting was joined to a fine and evenly produced voice.

The role of the Sultan Bajazet is one of the very few substantial tenor roles in Handel’s operas. As part of the composer’s flexible treatment of opera seria conventions, he didn’t score the role as a bass but chose the tenor range because Bajazet is not only an autocratic older man and a father but also “in every sense-musical and dramatic-the hero of the opera” (Dean). Jon Garrison was a rising tenor in 1980 when he sang the role of Elvino in Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Fourth Spoleto Festival in Charleston, the second I attended. In 2003 his voice is no longer as sweet as it once was, but he gave full dramatic value to the role, described by Dean as “one of the great tragic figures of the operatic stage.” Continuing, Dean writes, “His character is a compound of pride, obstinacy, tenderness, fearless courage and contempt for weakness in any form.” It is particularly galling that his conqueror, Tamerlano, is the son of a mere shepherd, and that he, scion of great breeding, is defeated by a commoner – who also seeks to marry his daughter! Of the three recorded versions I used to prepare for the opera (including Erato and Naxos DVD), only Alexander Young on the recently reissued Cambridge recording sang the role better than Garrison.

Alas for the solid bass of Andrew Gangestad, all but one aria and most of the recitative for the role of Irene’s confidant Leone were lost on the “cutting room floor” in an effort to hold the opera to a mere three hours. Otherwise his role was to enter at the end of scenes and view goings on with increasing alarm.