Delibes: Lakmé; Dessay, Kunde, Dam, Plasson & Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse

Delibes; Lakmé [EMI5565692] Dessay, Kunde, Dam, Plasson & Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
Classical, Opera | APE (Single Tracks) dBPoweramp | Covers | 2CD/495MB | RS.com

Review on Gramophone.co.uk
Opera audiences in nineteenth-century Paris may never have visited India, but they loved to dream about it. After the successes enjoyed by Les pecheurs de perles and Le roi de Lahore Delibes knew what he was doing when he chose to set an adaptation of Pierre Loti’s exotic Indian novel Rarahu and duly scored a hit with his opera Lakme at the Opera-Comique in 1883.

Today most of these French essays in exoticism seem to have lost their appeal in the opera house. Also, Lakme invites a few surreptitious giggles at its un-PC attitudes towards the colonial era, portraying the local population as colourful oddities and the British as stuck-up prigs. But it would be a shame if that deterred anybody from exploring an opera that is pure enchantment, filled with sensuous music of the kind that only French composers ever seem able to write. Two recommendable sets have been reissued from the LP era – Alain Lombard’s with Mady Mesple and Richard Bonynge’s with Dame Joan Sutherland – but it was time for renewal. This new EMI set has no weaknesses: imaginative casting of the main roles, an experienced team in the pit, and a good modern recording make it a clear first choice.

The opera is nothing without a star in the title-role. Natalie Dessay is certainly that and yet she never fails to remember that Delibes’s heroine must be a fragile and sensitive young creature. There is not much competition from Sutherland, whose singing is generalized and cloudy, with the words lost in the murk. It is easier to imagine loyal admirers retaining a fondness for the twinkling pin-point precision of Mesple, French coloratura par excellence, but she displays limited awareness of drama or character. Dessay’s Bell Song, brilliantly sung, is also intent on telling a story. Her singing of the death scene, with its delicate fil de voce perfectly poised each time the high A comes round, is heartfelt and leaves no doubt that this is a Lakme who deserves to go to heaven.

The good news is that EMI have found a worthy tenor to partner her. Gregory Kunde, as Gerald, is more at ease at the top of his voice than Alain Vanzo, who sounds strained on Bonynge’s set, and has the edge over the forthright Charles Burles, possibly underrated, for Lombard. At the first entrance of the colonial Brits, Frederic describes Gerald as a poet and Kunde lives up to the promise by phrasing his opening solo, “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges”, with a nice poetic sensibility. In the duets he and Dessay are tender young love personified. Maybe they could be invited to return in Manon or Les pecheurs de perles, if EMI were willing.

The supporting cast is a decent one. Jose van Dam sings the vengeful Nilakantha with complete authority, though Bacquier makes a more dangerous adversary on Bonynge’s set. Patricia Petibon and Franck Leguerinel make an attractive couple as Ellen and Frederic; Bernadette Antoine is aware she has to make a character out of the pompous governess Mistress Bentson, but is up against Monica Sinclair’s outrageous Lady Bracknell impersonation for Bonynge. Delphine Haidan’s Mallika gets to sing the favourite in-flight Lakme duet, made popular by British Airways, but does not blend ideally with Dessay.

Michel Plasson gives the music more room to breathe than Bonynge and is subtler than the heavyweight Lombard. The dreamy atmosphere that he conjures in the scenes of romance set among the jasmine and roses increasingly comes to seem another reason for giving this set pride of place. His Toulouse orchestra are adequate, if not exceptional, and the recording is of a good modern standard. What reason is there to resist? Once in a while it does no harm to indulge a taste for the exotic.

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