E. Matthews, D. Matthews; Di Toro, Bennett, Gabbedy; Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Joel-Hornak. Production: A. Cook. Opera Australia OPOZ56021BD (Blu-ray), OPOZ56020DVD (DVD), OPOZ56022CD (2 CDs), 143 mins., subtitled
Between 1892 and 1947, Delibes’s Lakmé racked up sixty-three performances on the Met stage and on tour, forty-nine featuring Lily Pons, who basically owned the title role from 1932 on. The bell song used to be one of opera’s greatest hits. Then Lakmé was dropped, and it has remained essentially unknown in this country. The flower duet is now the most familiar excerpt, thanks to a widely aired British Airways TV commercial.
Joan Sutherland sang the role with Opera Australia in the 1970s, and the present production — recorded live at the Sydney Opera House in September 2011 — features Emma Matthews, an appealing soprano who worked with Sutherland and her conductor/husband Richard Bonynge.
With fanciful sets and costumes by Mark Thompson (which look spectacularly good on Blu-ray), Roger Hodgman’s staging has an operetta quality, more like Gilbert & Sullivan than grand opera. (This remounting is based on a production by Adam Cook.) In colonial India, Gérald, a British soldier engaged to the Governor’s daughter, falls in love with the titular Brahmin priestess, whom no outsider is allowed to see, with tragic — or more accurately, pathetic — consequences. It’s mostly fluff, but Delibes’s score is lovely — not just for the famous set pieces but for the passionate and melodic love duets in each of the three acts.
The title role is associated with the coloratura fireworks of the bell song, but the remainder of Lakmé’s music calls for a full lyric soprano. Matthews’s sound is juicy, always under control, capable of dramatic outbursts yet flexible enough to pull back and negotiate the intricate bell staccatos with glittering accuracy. As made up here, she looks credibly Indian, with a memorable face that conveys a gamut of emotions. Some of her best moments are in the lyrical Act I couplets “Pourquoi dans les grands bois” and, later, “Dans la forêt.”
Gérald’s high-lying music is as difficult and demanding as Lakmé’s, and Aldo Di Toro puts it across most of the time, though not without noticeable strain and bleating. He is a distinctly unromantic hero, generating little heat with Matthews in their love scenes. As the servant Mallika, mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews (no relation to the soprano) is the perfect foil for Emma Matthews’s Lakmé, blending beautifully in their duets and supporting her dramatically in their limited appearances together. Stephen Bennett enacts Lakmé’s father, the priest Nilakantha, with conviction. His stabbing of Gérald is surprisingly convincing and very well staged, but his woofy bass voice is short at both ends of the range, and his delivery is monochromatic. The lovely stanzas “Lakmé, ton doux regard,” once a specialty of Marcel Journet and Ezio Pinza, are a throwaway here.
Luke Gabbedy, tall and handsome and more soldierly than Di Toro, plays Gérald’s comrade-in-arms Frédéric with swagger and a pleasant baritone sound. The trio of Miss Bentson (Roxane Hislop) and the sisters Ellen (Jane Parkin) and Rose (Angela Brun) could pass as three little maids from school. They look great and sing together splendidly. The Act II ballet is omitted, but the orchestra plays colorfully under Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, who shows a nice sense of line and rhythm.
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