Lakmé brings together many popular themes of opera in the 1880s: an exotic location — already in vogue thanks to Bizet's The Pearl Fishers — mysterious religious rituals, the beautiful flora of the Orient, and the general novelty of Western colonials living in a foreign land.
The story of the Brahmin girl Lakmé was based on a novel by Frenchman Pierre Loti, who had traveled in the Orient and brought back stories filled with exoticism. Librettist Edmond Gondinet suggested the story to composer Leo Delibes. Gondinet wanted to write a libretto specifically for a young American soprano named Marie van Zandt who had starred in another French opera, Mignon, in 1880. Gondinet gave Delibes a copy of Loti's novel, to read on a train ride, and Delibes loved it. He composed the score in a year's time.
Delibes' opera is full of gorgeous melodies, even if you don't count the coloratura sensation, the famous "Bell Song." That aria virtually demands a soprano of Sutherland's agility and ease, and it gets it here (this is the highlights version of Sutherland's complete recording). Even the few singers who can match her in the upper altitudes can't do it with a voice so rich and full. Sutherland's is a Lakmé beyond comparison with twittering, thin-voiced, coloratura specialists. She did make this recording at a time when her diction was mushy and her vocal lines sometimes drooped, so she's not beyond criticism. But revel in the voice; after all, Lakmé is a cardboard character, and the opera, for all its considerable charms, isn't another Ring cycle. Sutherland's colleagues are excellent too. Vanzo was one of the finest lyric tenors of his generation, and he's by far the best Gérald on disc. Jane Berbié and Gabriel Bacquier are also unmatched, and Bonynge's conducting is idiomatic and flowing.
Leo Delibes (Composer)
Richard Bonynge (Conductor)
Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra (Orchestra)
Joan Sutherland - Alain Vanzo - Emile Belcourt - Gabriel Bacquier - Gwenyth Annear - Jane Berbie - Joseph Clement - Monica Sinclair