19 Nov 2005


I have to admit it: this is the first time I ever listened to the complete version of this early Decca-issue of 1952 (though some sources say it was recorded one year earlier).

I filled my Lakmé-longings with a selection from this recording and have recordings of the Met Lakmé with Pons and Tokatyan, the 1976 Decca Lakmé with Sutherland and Vanzo, a Ruffini-Morino-version and Sumi Jo and Zhang in Amsterdam. Of course I possess a full Robin-version, though it is the French Radio performance of 1955 with Charles Richard. So I was in for quite a surprise and I am now wondering why I didn’t go for this version under review long time ago when I acquired the highlights-LP.

Old hands will remember the days when Decca bombed everybody with their ffrr (full frequency range recording) ads in the days before stereo. There is something nostalgic in hearing those sonics when singers where so clearly audible and not swamped by a lush orchestra. Yes, it’s true that the sound perhaps made eagles of sparrows but that is still the case with modern recording techniques; witness Bartoli who sounds like Simionato and Cossotto and has difficulty filling the Brussels Munt with its 1200 seats.

But the main selling point of this set are the singers. All of them started their careers at a time when Lakmé was part of the iron repertoire; when it was performed in France with a frequency that nowadays can only be compared with the numerous and unstoppable performances of Bohème at the Met. The whole performance sounds so natural, so convincing, so seamless that one almost forgets this is a recording; an artificial memo and not a wonderful once in fifty years direct radio performance. While playing it I never had the feeling for one moment that there was even a conductor, just that everybody was making great music and maybe this is the highest praise one can give Georges Sebastian.

And then there is the one and only Mado Robin. Of her several recorded Lakmé’s this is surely the best as after all corrections could be made. I was too young to have heard her in the flesh though I remember well the stunning news when the radio announced her gruesome death at 40 years of age. So I really don’t know how the voice came over in a big auditorium. But on records it is a miracle and not only in Lakmé (her “souvenirs de la belle époque” are one of my all-time favourites). The voice is so fresh, so scintillating and so slender that this is the Lakmé of one’s dreams. Sorry, all other competitors sound somewhat clumsy and old compared to Robin who gives an unforgettable impression of an Indian teenager. And yes, the stunning high notes are there too without losing focus or beauty of tone or sounding thinner as happened to Erna Sack. On video I have Robin singing several of these arias on camera in a time when shameful editing à la Placido Domingo was not possible: proof that there was nothing artificial to this unforgettable crystalline voice.

Her partners are not completely on the same level though they come close. Jean Borthayre as Nikalantha was still one of the best French baritones at the time of the recording when he was nearing fifty. The voice is a little bit gruff as suits the role and the style and pronunciation are flawless though Ernest Blanc combines rage, tenderness and sorrow even better in the highlights-selection with D’Angelo-Gedda I always held tenor Libero De Luca in not too high an esteem though this was more the result of bad casting by Decca (he is not a great Don José on their first Carmen with Juyol) than his own fault. His Gérald is another winner. Granted he is not so smooth and charming as young Alain Vanzo in his 1960-higlights-recording with Doria (on the 1976 Decca the voice is already too blowsy). Yes, the voice of De Luca is a little unwieldy and his pianissimo in Fantaisie aux divins mensonges are not on par with young Vanzo’s but he is manly, passionate and tender at the same time in the great tradition of Micheletti, Villabella and especially Charles Friant whose voice he mostly resembles. And De Luca was one of the many adopted French singers (like Endrèze) as he was born in the German part of Switzerland. Agnès Disney (what a name to make a career) is a charming authentic Melika in that beautiful duet that did much to restore the opera into favour as at a certain moment several big brands used it in their commercials in Europe (and maybe the States?). In short, if you like this masterpiece of tuneful music, this is probably the cheapest and the best version.

Jan Neckers