From 1976, Australian Opera filmed some of their performances
in partnership with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
By the mid-1980s they were broadcasting at least three productions
per year. This archive included many of Joan Sutherland’s
roles, some recorded nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately
three of those recorded by Australian Opera are no longer extant;
the masters for Lakmé, Norma and Lucrezia
Borgia had been wiped.
In the 1990s, copies of the original masters were found and,
after a considerable amount of work, the recordings were restored.
They are now available on DVD. This recording of Lakmé
from 1976 is the sound track from one of these filmed recordings,
now re-issued on CD.
This live recording was made ten years after Sutherland’s
commercial recording of Lakmé. In the studio,
Sutherland was surrounded by a substantially Francophone cast.
On these discs the Australian Opera cast are rather more polyglot.
However, the studio recording has come in for quite a lot of
critical comment because it was recorded at a period when Sutherland
seemed to have dispensed entirely with consonants.
On these discs Sutherland takes noticeably more care with the
language and her French is intermittently comprehensible. Whilst
you can always tell she is singing French, her vocal production
remains distinctly her own and in no way French influenced.
If you want to hear what a traditional French performance of
the title role can be like, it is worthwhile looking for Mady
Aged around 50 when this recording was made, Sutherland’s
instrument is not longer quite as perfect as it was. There are
occasional signs of strain at the top and a tendency to swoop
up to notes which would become more marked as she got older.
That said, her voice as captured on these discs remains one
of life’s miracles. Never the most dramatically intense
of performers, recording live seems to have given Sutherland
a dramatic edge. As her lover Gerald, Henri Willen provides
nicely heroic tone, perhaps a little too heroic at times, with
a little strain on top. He is more than acceptable, and will
do quite nicely but in the studio Sutherland was partnered by
the golden tones of Alain Vanzo.
Gerald’s official fiancée Ellen is nicely sung
by Isobel Buchanan and the other pair of lovers, Frederic and
Rose, by John Pringle and Jennifer Bermingham. These are relatively
small roles. To a certain extent their separate characters are
lost amid the aural mêlée. Recorded live in the
theatre, it is difficult to differentiate characters, particularly
in act 2; that is unless you are following with a libretto.
Rosina Raisbeck is a fine Miss Bentson, her strong characterisation
might be caricature, but it ensures that the character does
come over. Clifford Grant is a superb Nilakantha. Beautifully
sung, with fine French, Grant makes Nilakantha’s bluster
seem intelligent, and is certainly worth hearing. Inevitably
with a live performance, the ensemble is a bit shaky at times
and the chorus’s French is commendable but basic. Huguette
Tourangeau is Malika and she blends nicely with Sutherland in
the duet moments, which are the opera’s musical highpoint.
Bonynge conducts with sympathy and support for the voices. He
can’t turn Lakmé into a dramatic masterpiece
but ensures that it receives as shapely a performance as possible.
The CD booklet includes a track-listing (which manages to omit
act 3), synopsis and an article about the restoration of the
recording. This performance is also available on DVD; possible
Sutherland’s only filmed performance of Lakmé.
Frankly, I don’t know why you would specifically want
to buy this recording on CD if you could have it on DVD.
The booklet includes a picture of Sutherland and Tourangeau
taken from the AO production.
If you want Sutherland on CD, then go for the studio recording:
it has a superb cast and Sutherland is in fine voice despite
the lack of consonants. If you want Lakmé, and
you can afford it, then go for the more recent recording with
Natalie Dessay; its finely sung and almost manages to convince
you that the piece serves up real drama. This CD performance
of Australian Opera’s filmed version is probably for Sutherland
completists and AO supporters only.