Mady Mesplé, who has died aged 89, was a French soprano best known for her exhilarating interpretation in the title role of Delibes’s opera Lakmé; although hers was not a large voice, it was a light, silvery and attractive one and she thrilled audiences with her stylish interpretation, cool elegance and high-spirited performances.
Lakmé has long been a popular work with the French, and in the mid-20th century Mado Robin was regarded as its pre-eminent interpreter. Robin died in 1960 on the eve of the work’s 1,500th performance, after which Mady Mesplé reigned supreme as the Brahmin priestess, at least in the Francophone world.
Her 1970 recording was overshadowed in Britain by Joan Sutherland’s version and did not attract the attention of the critics until a disc of excerpts appeared 14 years later, prompting Gramophone magazine to note that Mady Mesplé “may be deemed more in the right tradition for the role, her easy, well-floated tone suited to the fey charm of Bell Song, duets and Berceuse”.
Mady Mesplé’s repertoire included not only grand opera roles such as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, her bright, occasionally shrill voice never missing a note in the famous aria, but also countless operetta heroines such as Olympia the doll in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.
Critics noted that her “diction was crystalline, her intonation faultless and her stratospheric flights of coloratura charged with insouciant daring”.
She also explored works by contemporary composers, giving the premiere of the French version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage and the French adaptation of Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers.
In 1972 she sang Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse with Pierre Boulez at St John’s Smith Square, London, totally at ease with its vast range of pitch and length of phrases.
Speaking to Gramophone in 1990, Mady Mesplé declared that resistance to less-accessible music was declining. “Audiences have changed greatly; they are nowadays much more sophisticated, more open and more willing to meet the performer and composer halfway,” she said. “The recital has become democratised and the relationship between performer and audience is very different.”
Madeleine Mesplé was born on March 7 1931 in Toulouse into a musical family, her parents having met in a choir. Her mother was a secretary at a clothing company and young Mady began playing the piano at an early age.
Her teacher wanted to send her to Paris, but the family were unable to afford the costs. To raise money Mady Mesplé played piano with a local ballroom orchestra, but several influential musicians noticed her singing along and suggested that her voice had potential.
When she finally arrived in the French capital it was to study singing with Janine Micheau, a leading French soprano of the mid-20th century, and in 1953 she made her debut in Lakmé with the Walloon Opera at Liège.
She went on to sing that role in her first appearances at Brussels in 1955 and at the Opéra-Comique in Paris the following year. In 1962 she stepped in at short notice for Joan Sutherland in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor.
In 1973 Mady Mesplé made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, giving four performances as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, but her voice struggled to fill the vast theatre and she did not return. She retired from the opera stage in 1985 but continued to sing professionally. Latterly she was teaching in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux.
Her visits to London were rare, but in 1988 she gave a farewell recital at the Wigmore Hall in a programme of mainly French chansons accompanied by Graham Johnson, her distinctively high-toned soprano leggiero undiminished by the years.
Mady Mesplé, born March 7 1931, died May 30 2020