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Leo DELIBES (1836–1891)
Lakmé (1883), Highlights
1. Prelude [3:22]
Act I:
2. Viens, Mallika … Dôme épais (Flower Duet) [5:56]
3. Prendre le dessin [5:16]
4. Les fleurs me paraissent plus belles [4:36]
5. D’où viens-tu? [7:27]
Act II:
6. C’est un pauvre qui mendie … Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile [6:01]
7. Par les dieux inspirée ... Où va la jeune indoue (Bell Song) [8:31]
8. Lakmé! Lakmé! c’est toi! [9:12]
Act III:
9. Sous le ciel tout étoilé  [3:53]
10. Quel vague souvenir [4:38]
11. Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve [9:52]
Mady Mesplé (soprano) – Lakmé; Danielle Millet (mezzo) – Mallika; Charles Burles (tenor) – Gerald; Roger Soyer (bass) – Nilakantha;
Paris Opéra-Comique Chorus and Orchestra/Alain Lombard
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 17 September-2 October, 18, 21 December 1970. ADD

The 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.

Lakmé 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.

Recorded 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.

Of 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.

And 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.

Both 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.

The 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 need.

Göran Forsling



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