fame of Clément Philibert Léo Delibes rests primarily on three
major works: the ballets Coppelia and Sylvia and
the opera Lakmé. We should not forget the little song
Les Filles de Cadiz, which has been a favourite with
many sopranos through the years, recorded by Amelita Galli-Curci,
Lily Pons and Victoria de los Angeles to mention just a few.
belongs to the Romantic exoticism that was in vogue during
the latter part of the 19th century. The action takes
place in India and deals with the love between the priestess
Lakmé and the English officer Gerald. In France the opera has
been frequently played and this continues. A search on Operabase
revealed performances between August 2006 and April 2008 in
Tulsa, Sydney, Saint-Erienne, Montreal, Minneapolis, Maribor,
London (Holland Park) and Bielefeld – these last being concert
performances. On record the Bell Song with its coloratura can
be heard in numerous versions, the Flower Duet has become popular
through exposure in TV commercials and occasionally Gerald’s
Prendre le dessin can also be heard. But there is a lot
of attractive music besides these plums. This highlights disc
covers all the best pieces.
in the Salle Wagram the sound is full and dynamically thrilling.
The Opéra-Comique strings seem a bit undernourished – are they
too few?. Even so Alain Lombard still brings forth the melodic
sweetness of Delibes’s score, which is colourful in its orchestration
but can today seem too perfumed. Lombard does what he can to
avoid drowning the listener in treacle. He is far superior here
to the lame and lacklustre conducting he produced in the Turandot,
also from the 1970s, of which I reviewed a highlights disc
recently. The Flower Duet, which may tempt some readers
to acquire the disc, is recorded rather distantly, but turn
up the volume a bit for this particular scene and all is well.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle Millet is a worthy partner to Mady Mesplé
in the duet – her only appearance on this disc.
Ms Mesplé we hear so much more. She took over this part after
the legendary Mado Robin and it was, together with Lucia
di Lammermoor, her signature role. She had been singing
the part for twelve years when this recording was made and hers
is a deeply involved reading of the kind that only long-time
familiarity can produce. Her technical prowess is stunning with
effortless coloratura, weightless excursions up in the stratosphere
and bell-like purity of tone. Few coloratura sopranos in recent
times have been so ethereal as Mesplé and the fast flicker in
her voice also gives her reading a shade of vulnerability. The
Bell Song is as close to perfection as one can imagine. This
is astonishing vocalism! Some listeners may lack the last ounce
of warmth in her voice and find the quality slightly acidulous.
However obvious affection she brings to this reading is unlikely
to leave anyone indifferent to this performance.
she isn’t the only one to reach the heights on this disc. After
Leopold Simoneau’s retirement from the stage in the mid-1960s,
Alain Vanzo and Charles Burles were the two leading French lyric
tenors. Simoneau was of course Canadian but he was French speaker
and had all the attributes of a French lyric tenor. Of these
two Vanzo was the smoothest, whereas Burles had a certain edge
to the tone. I mention this, not as criticism but to give readers
an impression of what he sounds like. Both singers had extremely
beautiful voices and could manage a honeyed half-voice to perfection.
Burles sings Prendre le dessin with consummate beauty
and his reading is in no way inferior to Vanzo’s, who recorded
the role for Decca a couple of years earlier with Joan Sutherland.
Burles and Mesplé are at their lyrical best in the first act
duet and the duet in act 2 (tr. 8) is really glowing, as are
the excerpts from act 3. Lakmé’s father, Nilakantha, is sung
with lyrical beauty by the resonant Roger Soyer, but he is arguably
too genial for the role, which ideally requires more vehemence.
complete 1952 recording with Mado Robin and a fine supporting
cast – now on Naxos
– will always retain a honoured place in my collection, even
though the sound is a bit dated, and the Bonynge / Sutherland
/ Vanzo / Bacquier (Decca) also has a lot to offer. Sutherland
is however a less idiomatic Lakmé than either Robin or Mesplé.
And then there is the Virgin release from the mid-1990s with
Natalie Dessay. I hope this Lombard recording will appear again
in its entirety, and then it will be highly recommendable, but
for readers who are satisfied with the plums in the cake this
well-filled anthology at budget price will be exactly what they