With the world’s focus on France this week (and if it isn’t, it should be!), it seems appropriate to offer you a staple of the French repertoire: Lakmé, the oriental fantasia by Léo Delibes. This 1980 performance from Dallas stars Ruth Welting, Alfredo Kraus, and Paul Plishka, conducted by Nicola Rescigno.
Lakmé, composed for American coloratura Marie van Zandt, scored 500 performances at the Opéra Comique in the 26 years after its 1883 premiere, and 1000 by 1931.
The opera quickly spread throughout the world and had its premiere at the old Met in its first decade in 1892 staring van Zandt.
A new production in 1932 was a triumph for Lily Pons, who sang 50 complete performances (excluding galas and concerts) until the opera’s last appearance by the Met in 1947, missing only two shows in the 15-year run. She sang the role for opening night of the 1946/1947 season, and the program for her 25th anniversary with the company in 1956 included – to no one’s surprise – “Où va la jeune Hindoue?” also know as the “L’Air des clochettes.” It was her RCA Victrola 78 recorded on 8 December 1930 that turned me on to the opera.
I had to wait till September 1984 to see a fully-staged Lakmé: a New York City Opera production starring Gianna Rolandi, Barry McCauley, Susanne Marsee, and Harry Dworchak. It hasn’t been done anywhere near me since then (Wiener Staatsoper last performed it in 1925).
Ruth Welting had one of those amazing, almost-freakish voices which soared comfortably to an A in alt, a startlingly perfect trill, and incredibly clear articulation of all those little notes on the way up there. She sang the Lucia mad scene in the original key of F major.
She performed all the standard coloratura roles in her years at NYCO, as well as 16 seasons at the Met, mostly as die Könegin der Nacht, Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and some Zerbinettas.
By the age of 46, with 20+ years of a busy schedule behind her, her voice started to show some strain and she quit singing to take up studies of government and foreign affairs. She was diagnosed with cancer in early 1991 and died a few months later at age 51.
Alfred Kraus had a legendary, worldwide, well-documented career that spanned over 40 years with a relatively small repertoire. He is often given as an example of the theory that once you find your Fach and a few roles of which you are master, don’t start dibbling with heavier repertoire.
Kraus was a textbook light lyric tenor who never ventured very far away from Nemorino, Roméo, Tonio, Ernesto, Massenet’s Des Grieux, and Edgardo. His heaviest roles were, most likely, Hoffmann and Werther.
He made his operatic debut in 1956; just two years later he performed Alfredo to the Violetta of Maria Callas in what we all know as “The Lisbon Traviata.”
Here’s some fascinating trivia: Kraus made the first of his 136 Met performances as the Duca in Rigoletto alongside Cornell MacNeil and Roberta Petersat the old house in January 1966; he ended his tenure with the company in the same role in November 1994 with Paolo Gavanelli and Sumi Jo, sounding much the way he had 28 years earlier. He returned in April 1996 at age 68 for the 25th anniversary of James Levine and delivered an unforgettable “Pourquoi me réveiller?”
He died in Madrid in 1999 at age 71.