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Great Opera Recordings
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)
Opera in 3 acts
Libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, after Pierre Loti
Lakmé - Mado Robin (soprano)
Mallika - Agnès Disney (mezzo-soprano)
Ellen - Claudine Collart (soprano)
Rose - Simone LeMaître (soprano)
Gérald - Libero De Luca (tenor)
Nilakantha - Jean Borthayre (bass)
Frédéric - Jacques Jansen (baritone)
Hadji - Pierre Germain (tenor)
Mistress Bentson - Jane Perriat (mezzo-soprano)
Fortune Teller - Edmond Chastenet (tenor)
Chinese Merchant - Camille Rouquetty (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris
The French composer Léo Delibes was born in Saint-Germain du val, near Le Mans, in 1836, the grandson of an opera singer, and the son of a postman and his musical wife. Following the early death of his father, he was raised by his mother and uncle who introduced him to the piano and to composition. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1847 as a composition pupil of Adolphe Adam, the composer of the ballet Giselle. He served as accompanist and chorus-master at the Théâtre-Lyrique between 1853 and 1864, and was appointed second chorus-master at the Paris Opéra in 1865. He was also a church organist between 1853 and 1871.
Delibes's first work for the theatre was the light opera Deux sous de charbon, which was staged at the Folies-Nouvelles in 1856. He continued to compose similar works for the next fifteen years, at the rate of about one a year. Following the success of his ceremonial cantata Alger, written for Napoleon III, he was invited to collaborate with another composer, Léon Minkus, on the creation of the ballet La Source, first performed in 1866. Delibes's contributions were considered most successful and he was asked to compose additional music for the revival of Adam's Le Corsaire in 1867. This was followed by the commission for his first full-length ballet score, Coppélia, which received is first performance in 1870 to great acclaim. Delibes was the first composer of ballet music to include within it expressive elements. His score for the ballet Sylvia, first seen in 1876, is considered to be the best ballet music before Tchaikovsky, who judged it to be finer even than his own Swan Lake.
Between Coppélia and Sylvia Delibes composed his first full-length opera, Le Roi l'a dit, which received its première at the Opéra-Comique in 1873. This was followed by another opera, Jean de Nivelle, first seen in 1880. By now established as a leading member of the French musical establishment, Delibes was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1881. The following year he composed incidental music for a production at the Comédie-Française of Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse. Thereafter he devoted himself to opera. His greatest operatic success, Lakmé, received its first performance in 1883 at the Opéra-Comique: it propelled him to the front rank of French composers for the stage and soon rivalled Bizet's Carmen in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. Delibes was made a member of the Institut de France in 1884. At his death in 1891 he left unfinished the opera Kassya, which was completed by Massenet.
The score of Lakmé is characteristically French in its rich orchestration and elegant melodies. The setting is India, the time the mid-nineteenth century. The first act takes place in the flowered grounds of a Hindu temple. The Brahmin priest Nilakantha nurses an intense hatred for those who prevent him from practising his own religion [CD 1 / Tracks 1-2]. He departs to attend a meeting of the faithful, leaving his daughter Lakmé and her attendant Mallika outside the temple [1/3-4]. They sing together, before departing in a boat to collect flowers from the jungle to place on the temple altar [1/5]. Two English men, Gérald and Frédéric, accompanied by two young English girls, Ellen and Rose, and their governess Miss Bentson, appear. They break through the bamboo fence that surrounds the temple, and comment that many of the flowers in the area are poisonous [1/6]. They notice some of Lakmé's pieces of jewelry lying on a stone table, and Gérald agrees to stay behind to make the sketches of these [1/7-9]. Lakmé and Mallika return, and Gérald hides [1/10]. Mallika departs, leaving Lakmé alone: when she sees Gérald she cries out in alarm, but she sends away those who come to her aid [1/11]. She tells Gérald that he must forget that he ever saw her, but he is fascinated by Lakmé [1/12]. Nilakantha returns, sees the violation of the temple grounds, and swears to kill those responsible [1/13].
The second act is set in the busy market-place of a nearby town, which Ellen, Miss Bentson and Frédéric are visiting [1/14-17]. In order to identify the temple intruder, Nilakantha had disguised himself as a beggar and, despite commenting on her unhappy looks, forces Lakmé to sing in order to attract the attention of the trespasser [1/18-19]. She sings of the legend of the Pariah's daughter who saved the life of Vishnu, the son of Brahma, by ringing her bracelet bells to warn him of an imminent attack [2/1-2]. To Nilakantha's dismay, no one answers to her singing and he commands her to continue [2/3]. Gérald now appears from the crowd, recognizing Lakmé [2/4-8]. As he approaches her, Nilakantha stabs him, but Gérald is only slightly injured. Hadji, Nilakantha's servant, helps Lakmé to take Gérald to her secret hiding place in the forest [2/9].
The third and final act is set in Lakmé's forest hut where she is tending Gérald [2/10-12]. The distant sound of singing can be heard. She tells him it is lovers who come to drink from the sacred spring, and whose waters confer the gift of eternal love. She urges him to drink the magical water that will ensure the couple everlasting love. Gérald hesitates, torn between his love for her and his duty to his regiment. Lakmé leaves to fetch the sacred water [2/13]. Frédéric appears and urges Gérald to return to duty, which he agrees to do [2/14]. When Lakmé returns she notices a change in Gérald [2/15]. Realising that she has lost him, she tears a leaf from a fatal tree and bites it. As she is dying, they drink together from the water of the sacred river [2/16]. Nilakantha enters and Lakmé tells him she and her lover have shared the sacred water: Gérald is therefore sacrosanct to the gods. If they demand a sacrifice she will give them what they ask. She dies in Gérald's arms [2/17].
Decca's 1952 recording of Lakmé featured a fine Francophone cast of the period. Leading the forces of the Paris Opéra-Comique was the Hungarian-born conductor, Georges Sébastian (1903-19