Leo DELIBES (1836 - 1891)
Lakmé(1883) [149.009]
Lakmé - Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Gerald - Henri Wilden (tenor)
Nilakantha - Clifford Grant (bass)
Ellen - Isobel Buchanan (soprano)
Frederick - John Pringle (baritone)
Mallika - Huguette Tourangeau (mezzo)
Hadji -Graeme Ewer (tenor)
Rose - Jennifer Bermingham (soprano)
Miss Bentson - Rosina Raisbeck (mezzo-soprano)
A fortune teller - Kevin Mills (tenor)
A Chinese trinket seller - George Carter (tenor)
A pickpocket - Graeme Williams (baritone)
A Chinese medicine seller - Trevor Brown (baritone)
Australian Opera Chorus
The Elizabethan Symphony Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. live, Sydney Opera House, 18 August 1976. ADD
OPERA AUSTRALIA OPOZ56012CD [77.35 + 71.34] 

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 Mesple’s recording.
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.  

Robert Hugill 

Probably for Sutherland completists and AO supporters only.