Delibes: Lakme / Bonynge, Sutherland, Tourangeau, Raisbeck, Pringle
DELIBES Lakmé • Richard Bonynge, cond; Joan Sutherland ( Lakmé ); Isobel Buchanan ( Ellen ); Jennifer Berminghan ( Rose ); Huguette Tourangeau ( Mallika ); Rosina Raisbeck ( Miss Bentson ); Henri Wilden ( Gérald ); Graeme Ewer ( Hadji ); John Pringle ( Frédérick ); Clifford Grant ( Nilakantha ); Australian Op Ch; Elizabethan Sydney O • OPERA AUSTRALIA OPOZ56012 (2 CDs: 149:05) Live: Sydney 8/18/1976
In 1976, Australian Opera (now known as Opera Australia), with the help of the Australian Broadcasting Company, began filming operas and concerts for broadcast on television and radio. Many of these productions were eventually released for home video. It was believed that three productions featuring Joan Sutherland, Lakmé, Lucrezia Borgia , and Norma , were lost. They were eventually found after a six-year search but, according to the accompanying CD booklet, were in terrible shape because of poor storage. The booklet recounts the difficult process of preserving and restoring these tapes.
Had Opera Australia not recounted the history of this recording, I would not have known that there ever was a problem of any kind. The sound is excellent for a live recording, though somewhat boxy, lacking in atmosphere. The notes refer to “blank gaps resulting from countless audio drop-outs” for which matching material had to be found and spliced in. The restoration, as far as I am concerned, is completely successful.
The question then arises, was all that effort worthwhile? If we lacked a recorded memorial of Sutherland’s Lakmé, or if we had only an inferior recording of Sutherland in the role, then this recording would be an invaluable addition to the catalog.
Opera Australia’s production is generally a very good one. It has two outstanding portrayals. Sutherland is very good as Lakmé, coping easily with the difficult Bell Song in act II, as one would expect. It must be admitted, however, that she neither sounds nor looks (as the booklet picture shows) like a girl of the age she is portraying. Clifford Grant is excellent as Nilakantha, his dark, steady voice making a perfect fit for the role. Henri Wilden is an ardent and believable Gérald, although his voice lacks the elegance and ease of his recorded competition. John Pringle is a sympathetic, steady Frédérick, and the minor roles are taken adequately (Rosina Raisbeck) or better (everyone else).
Sutherland recorded Lakmé for Decca in 1967. She was in steadier voice at the time of the Decca recording than she was nine years later for Opera Australia, though the difference is not substantial and much of it could be the difference between studio and live recordings. In almost every other role, I prefer the Decca cast to the Opera Australia one. Alain Vanzo sings with great beauty of tone and fervor in a totally successful portrayal of Gérald. I prefer Jane Berbié (Decca) as Mallika, where she sounds more youthful and fresher of voice than Opera Australia’s Huguette Tourangeau, familiar from many Sutherland recordings. Honors are evenly split between Gabriel Bacquier (Decca) and Clifford Grant as Nilakantha and between Claud Calès (Decca) and John Pringle as Frédérick. Monica Sinclair is a definite improvement over Rosina Raisbeck as Miss Bentson.
There is little evidence that Richard Bonynge’s conception of the opera had changed over the nine years between recordings, although he does seem a bit surer in his handling of the orchestra in the Opera Australia performance. Orchestra and chorus perform very well. The sonic balance of the present recording places the orchestra front and center though in no way overpowering the singers, while the Decca recording has a more-balanced perspective.
In both recordings, Bonynge uses an edition of the score in which some dialogue is set as recitative. Joel Kasow discussed a similar edition used by Michel Plasson in his recording ( Fanfare 22:4). The live recording contains some cuts; perhaps these are the result of damage to the original tape that could not be restored. The audience is generally quiet except for applause at all the expected places.
In a bit of sloppy editing, the CD booklet omits the track list and timings for act III. There is no libretto, just track list and timings for the first two acts, along with a synopsis of the action and an article on the restoration process in English, French, and German.
This is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a recording of Lakmé . However, for those who enjoy live-performance recordings, this set can be a valuable supplement to one of the studio recordings.
FANFARE: Ron Salemi
Catalog Number: OPOZ56012CD
Label: Opera Australia
Composer: Léo Delibes
Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Orchestra/Ensemble: Autralian Opera Chorus, Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra
Performer: Clifford Grant, Dame Joan Sutherland, Graeme Ewer, Henri Wilden, Huguette Tourangeau, Isobel Buchanan, John Pringle, Rosina Raisbeck