> Leo Delibes - Lakmé [RJF]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Leo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Lakmé (Opera in 3 Acts) (1883)
Lakmé, Mady Mesplé (Sop). Gerald, Charles Burles (ten). Nilakantha, Roger Soyer (b.bar).
Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre National de I'Opéra Comique. Cond. Alain Lombard.
Recorded: Salle Wagram, Paris 1971.
"Great Recordings of the Century" Series.
EMI CLASSICS 567742 - 2CDs [149.44] Mid Price.


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Having studied under the composer Adolphe Adam in Paris, Delibes composed a number of popular operettas before turning his hand to ballet, achieving fame with Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876), which Tchaikovsky claimed to be superior to his own Swan Lake; he also professed to preferring the music of Delibes to that of both Brahms and Wagner. Delibes was drawn back to opera and composed three works for the Opéra-Comique in Paris including Lakmé (1883) in which he followed the current vogue with the 'mysterious' East, setting the story of the English Officer, Gerald, and the Indian girl Lakmé, with whom he becomes enthralled having met her after inadvertently stumbling into a sacred place. Lakmé's father, Nilakantha, swears vengeance on the infidel who has desecrated the sacred place. In the dénouement the two lovers drink poison and Nilakantha is denied his vengeance.

Lakmé, like Bizet's Pearl Fishers (1863), is full of mock oriental melody, but unlike the latter work has never achieved widespread production outside France, despite the popularity of the Bell Song (CD2 tr 3/4) and, more recently, at least in the UK, of the Flower Duet (CD1 tr6), which was used as part of an advert for a certain favourite airline (British Airways). The Bell Song was recorded by Tetrazzini in 1907 and Lily Pons in 1929 and 1944. It was probably the justification for the 1952 recording of the complete opera in which Mado Robin interpolated an unwritten high G sharp of which Richard Osborne, in a brief but informative booklet note, suggests is one of the highest notes ever recorded by the human voice. Certainly the coloratura demands of the eponymous heroine were the 'raison d'être' of the 1967 recording with Joan Sutherland in the name part and Alain Vanzo as Gerald under Bonynge's baton. However that performance could not be said to be idiomatic despite Vanzo's elegant singing and that of the other native speakers in the cast. Its drawback is Sutherland's lack of clear diction however spectacular her coloratura. Thus the way was open for this 1970 recording by EMI France, which took time to achieve international circulation. It remained at full price until being recently displaced by the same company's recent recording with Natalie Dessay (EMI CDS 556569).

Mady Mesplé, who made her stage debut in 1953, was a favourite of EMI France. In twelve recently re-issued French operettas she features in no less than six. Her voice is that of a light lyric coloratura soprano with a good trill, diction, and clear tone. Her lean tone, and quick vibrato, allows for a limited range of expression, but her lack of variety of tonal colour, and at times vocal heft (both of which Sutherland has in abundance), are serious limitations on her interpretation of Lakmé's many moods. As Gerald, Charles Burles exhibits a pleasing, slightly nasal tone. He phrases well and holds a good line; a light tenor in the French Opéra-Comique tradition, whilst he suffers in comparison with the vocally assured and elegant Vanzo on the Sutherland set, he doesn't let the side down. Try CD 1 trl 6-17 where Gerald and Lakmé meet. Roger Soyer's bass-baritone voice is in the tradition of Journet; a powerful well-focused instrument. He has a good range, a warm resonant yet clear voice taking dramatic pressure with a wide compass of expression and makes an appropriately threatening Nilakantha. His brief cavatina (CD 1 tr18) and later aria (tr 31) illustrate his strengths. All the lesser parts are idiomatically taken. Alain Lombard conducts a dramatic performance, drawing well-focused playing, with wide tonal dynamic and nuance, from the orchestra. The chorus play a full and vigorous part, and in a warm yet clear and well-balanced recording, are heard to good advantage and great benefit to the dramatic whole. There is a track related synopsis and full libretto with English and German translations. There are no singer biographies.

A "Great Recording of the Century"? Not really; but quite enjoyable despite Mesplé's limitations. The Sutherland set is now available as a Double Decca at about 80% of the price of this set, and her coloratura is spectacular. This issue has only a track related synopsis and no libretto, but then words are not exactly the issue with Sutherland!

Robert J Farr


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