Delibes is best-known today for his ballets Coppélia
and Sylvia, the song Les filles de Cadix and the
opera Lakmé. The latter lives on in the Bell Song, performed
as a vehicle for high coloratura sopranos. The opera itself
was a great success from the beginning and even challenged Carmen
in popularity. In 1960 the Opéra-Comique gave it for the 1,500th
time at a performance arranged for soprano Mado Robin’s 42nd
birthday. Alas she died of cancer a few days earlier. Lakmé
was her greatest role and hearing her on this recording it is
easy to understand the enthusiasm of the audiences. The role
could have been written with her voice in mind.
earlier singers who excelled in the title-role one can mention
Luisa Tetrazzini, Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons who also
recorded the opera in 1940. Joan Sutherland recorded it in Monte
Carlo with Alain Vanzo and Gabriel Bacquier under Richard Bonynge.
Mady Mesplé, Charles Burles and Roger Soyer were also joined
by the Opéra-Comique ensemble, conducted by Alain Lombard. In
1995 Virgin issued a recording with the ever-reliable Michel
Plasson. His trump card is Natalie Dessay who is as close to
perfection as one can imagine in the title role and the only
serious contender against the issue under consideration.
story of Lakmé is set in India during the 19th
century. The English have forbidden Brahminism but the Brahmin
priest Nilakantha still practises it in the temple, helped by
his daughter Lakmé. Two English officers, Gerald and Frederic,
intrude into the temple precinct, together with two English
girls and their governess. Gerald stays behind to make sketches
of some jewellery and when Lakmé enters he falls in love with
her. She tells him to leave and forget that he ever saw her.
When Nilakantha becomes aware of the intrusion he swears that
he will kill the guilty ones. In disguise he brings Lakmé to
the market-place and forces her to sing. She then sings the
Bell Song, Gerald recognises her and tries to get close
to her, whereupon Nilakantha stabs him. Gerald escapes death
and is taken by Lakmé and a servant to her hut in the forest
where she tends him. In the third act they drink together from
a sacred spring to ensure eternal love. Frederic appears and
tells Gerald to return to his duties as an officer. Lakmé realises
that she is going to lose him and eats a poisonous flower. Nilakantha
comes to kill Gerald but Lakmé tells him that Gerald has drunk
from the sacred spring and so is sacrosanct. Instead she is
to be sacrificed and she dies in Gerald’s arms.
some respects this opera anticipates Madama Butterfly:
the cultural clash between West and East, the military aspect.
Both Delibes and Puccini try to catch the exotic atmosphere
by spicing the music with orientalisms. The music is melodic
and expertly orchestrated. Even though Delibes is better at
depicting the lyrical moments than the dramatic ones it is an
attractive score with several grateful numbers. Besides Lakmé’s
many exquisite solos she also sings the often heard Dôme
épais le jasmine duet with Mallika (CD1 tr. 5). Gerald‘s
aria Fantaisie aux divins mensonges (CD1 tr. 9) is among
the finest French tenor arias and Nilakantha has his act 2 aria
Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile (CD1 tr. 19).
by Decca in 1952 I had expected the somewhat thin, undernourished
sound that marked many recordings from that source but instead
was impressed by its splendour and fullness, lacking very little
in punch and so detailed that most of the exquisite scoring
made its mark.
Georges Sebastian held many conducting posts in Germany and
the Soviet Union before the war, later he settled in Paris where
he became chief conductor at the Paris Opera and also appeared
frequently at the Opéra-Comique. Consequently he was familiar
with the French opera tradition and with a native cast well
versed in the tradition this recording presents the opera as
authentically as possible. Down to the tiniest comprimario role
everything feels so right.
Robin in the title role is fabulous. Her voice is so completely
enchanting: agile in coloratura, glittering and so effortless
and elegant. There is never a sense of strain, rather it feels
as if she never touches the floor. The Bell Song (CD2
tr. 2) is her calling card but she is possibly even more lovely
in the opening of act 3 (CD2 tr. 11) and also at the end of
the opera (CD2 tr. 16-17). Swiss-born Libero De Luca who sings
Gerald had an international career during the years after WW2
but from 1949 he was primarily active in the opera houses of
Paris. He is stylish and nuanced. Once or twice he presses too
much but in the main he is well behaved and in the scenes with
Lakmé in acts 2 and 3 he sings with passion. He isn’t as mellifluous
and delicate as Simoneau or – later – Alain Vanzo but he isn’t
far behind. Jean Borthayre impresses greatly as Nilakantha.
He has a steady, intense voice, more baritone than bass, and
he is dramatically expressive.
the smaller roles Agnès Disney sports a darkish dramatic mezzo-soprano
as Mallika, and despite having quite a different voice type
than Mado Robin they match each other well in the duet. As Frederic,
Gerald’s officer colleague, Jacques Jansen makes much of little.
He was known first and foremost as possibly the greatest Pelléas
in Debussy’s opera.
an appendix we get three arias from Lakmé sung by French
singers from an earlier generation. Recorded 1929 and 1931,
these transfers also have impressive sound. Villabella delivers
Gerald’s aria with smooth Schipa-like tone and phrasing. Couzinou
sings with expert legato and a tone that is distantly similar
to that of Boris Christoff. Leila Ben Sedira sings The Bell
Song with the same lightness as Mado Robin but her voice
is thinner; impressive even so. An uncredited Nilakantha also
appears on this track.
budget price this recording can be wholeheartedly recommended
and the mono sound is of such quality that even my wife, who
is more or less allergic to “historical” recordings, sat through
the whole opera. I haven’t heard the Mesplé recording but being
very familiar with her voice I doubt that she can challenge
Mado Robin. Her tone has a certain acid that is totally absent
from Mado Robin’s. Sutherland is of course technically superb
in the pyrotechnics but she is occluded and as usual textually
neutral. Alain Vanzo was the best French tenor in his generation
and his singing of Gerard’s aria is possibly the best on record.
Gabriel Bacquier is a pillar of strength as Nilakantha, but
the best modern recording, and the most marvellous singing of
the title part since Mado Robin is undoubtedly to be found in
the Plasson recording with Natalie Dessay challenging even Mado
Robin. I believe, however, that when I want to hear this opera
again in a truly authentic version, it is most likely to be
through the Sebastian recording.