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Leo DELIBES (1836–1891)
Lakmé (1883)
Mado Robin (soprano) – Lakmé; Agnès Disney (mezzo) – Mallika; Claudine Collart (soprano) – Ellen; Simone LeMaître (soprano) – Rose; Libero De Luca (tenor) – Gerald; Jean Borthayre (bass) – Nilakantha; Jacques Jansen (baritone) – Frederic; Pierre Germain (tenor) – Hadji; Jane Perriat (mezzo) – Mistress Bentson; Edmond Chastenet (tenor) – Fortune Teller; Camille Rouquetty (tenor) – Chinese Merchant;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris/Georges Sebastian
rec. July 1952, Maison de la Mutualité, Paris. ADD
Three arias from Lakmé sung by French singers of the 1920s and 1930s
Prendre le dessin d’un bijou … Fantaisie aux divins mensonges
Miguel Villabella (tenor); Orchestra/François Rühlmann
rec. 1931
Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile
Robert Couzinou (bass); Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Lamoureux/Albert Wolff
rec. 1929
Où va la jeune indoue (Bell Song)
Leila Ben Sedira (soprano); Orchestra/Maurice Frigara
rec. 1929
NAXOS 8.111235-36 [70:33 + 79:13]

Leo 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.

Among 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.

The 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.

In 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).

Recorded 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.

Hungarian-born 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.

Mado 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.

In 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.

As 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.

At 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.

Göran Forsling 




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