Léo Delibes: Lakmé
Most of us would be hard pressed to describe the characters, plot or musical development of Delibes’s three-act opera Lakmé.
Its resurgent popularity in the 1990s was down to one thing: the use of one particular section of the opera in a certain television commercial. The Flower Duet first appeared in a British Airways advert in 1989 and quickly became one of the most well-known pieces of classical music in Britain.
Up until then, the opera had lain in relative obscurity. Its only slight success had been that, unlike other operas by the composer, this one had remained in the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide and continued to be held in high esteem by the classical music cognoscenti. It’s a tragic opera set in the Orient, a place known for its beautiful flowers – hence the title of this duet, sung by the principal character Lakmé and her slave Mallika. The sumptuous, exotic music is light, delicate and instantly beautiful, much like the flowers it depicts.
The Flower Duet’s use in popular culture isn’t restricted only to those British Airways commercials. More recently, it’s been heard in films such as Meet the Parents and True Romance and television shows including The Simpsons.
Natalie Dessay (soprano) as Lakmé; Delphine Haidan (soprano) as Mallika; Gregory Kunde (tenor) as Gerald; José van Dam (bass-baritone) as Nilakantha; Toulouse Capitole Choir and Orchestra; Michel Plasson (conductor).
EMI Classics: CDS 5565692.
Illustration: Mark Millington
This article is about the opera. For the Indian cosmetics manufacturer, see Lakme cosmetics.
Lakmé is an opera in three acts by Léo Delibes to a French libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille.
The score, written in 1881-2, was first performed on 14 April 1883 by the Opéra-Comique at the (second) Salle Favart in Paris, with stage decorations designed by Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon (Act I), Eugène Louis Carpezat and (Joseph-)Antoine Lavastre (Act II), and Jean-Baptiste Lavastre (Act III). Set in British India in the mid-19th century, Lakmé is based on Théodore Pavie's story "Les babouches du Brahamane" and novel Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti.
The opera includes the popular Flower Duet (Sous le dôme épais) for sopranos performed in Act 1 by Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest, and her servant Mallika. The name Lakmé is the French rendition of Sanskrit Lakshmi, the name of the Hindu Goddess of Wealth. The opera's most famous aria is the Bell Song (L'Air des clochettes) in Act 2.
Like other French operas of the period, Lakmé captures the ambience of the Orient seen through Western eyes, which was periodically in vogue during the latter part of the 19th century and in line with other operatic works such as Bizet's The Pearl Fishers and Massenet's Le roi de Lahore. The subject of the opera was suggested by Gondinet as a vehicle for the American soprano Marie van Zandt.
The Indian fashion brand Lakmé, established in 1952 by the Tata Group and now owned by Hindustan Unilever, is named after this opera.
Following its premiere at the Opéra Comique in 1883, Lakmé reached its 500th performance there on 23 June 1909 and 1,000th on 13 May 1931. A series of performances took place at the Théâtre Gaîté Lyrique Paris in 1908, with Alice Verlet, David Devriès and Félix Vieuille.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast,|
14 April 1883
(Conductor: Jules Danbé)
|Lakmé, a priestess, daughter of Nilakantha||coloratura soprano||Marie van Zandt|
|Gérald, a British army officer||tenor||Jean-Alexandre Talazac|
|Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest||bass||Cobalet|
|Frédéric, officer friend of Gérald||baritone||Barré|
|Mallika, slave of Lakmé||mezzo-soprano||Elisa Frandin|
|Hadji, slave of Nilakantha||tenor||Chennevière|
|Miss Ellen, fiancée of Gérald||soprano||Rémy|
|Miss Rose, companion of Ellen||soprano||Molé-Truffier|
|Mistress Bentson, a governess||mezzo-soprano||Pierron|
|Fortune teller (Un Domben)||tenor||Teste|
|A Chinese merchant||tenor||Davoust|
|Chorus: Officers, ladies, merchants, Brahmins, musicians|
- Place: India
- Time: Late nineteenth century during the British Raj. Many Hindus have been forced by the British to practise their religion in secret.
The Hindus go to perform their rites in a sacred Brahmin temple under the high priest, Nilakantha. Nilakantha's daughter Lakmé (which derives from the Sanskrit Lakshmi) and her servant Mallika are left behind and go down to the river to gather flowers where they sing the "Flower Duet". As they approach the water at the river bank, Lakmé removes her jewelry and places it on a bench. A party of British officers, Frederic and Gérald, arrive nearby while on a picnic with two British girls and their governess. The British girls see the jewelry and request sketches; Gérald volunteers to stay and make sketches of the jewelry. He sees Lakmé and Mallika returning and hides. Mallika leaves Lakmé for a while; while alone Lakmé sees Gérald and, frightened by the foreigner's incursion, cries out for help. However, simultaneously, she is intrigued and so she sends away those who had responded to her call for help when they come to her rescue. Lakmé and Gérald begin to fall in love with each other. Nilakantha returns and learns of the British officer's trespassing and vows revenge on him for his affront to Lakmé's honor.
At a bazaar, Nilakantha forces Lakmé to sing (the Bell Song) in order to lure the trespasser into identifying himself. When Gérald steps forward, Lakmé faints, thus giving him away. Nilakantha stabs Gérald, wounding him. Lakmé takes Gérald to a secret hideout in the forest, where she nurses him back to health.
While Lakmé fetches sacred water that will confirm the vows of the lovers, Fréderic, a fellow British officer, appears before Gérald and reminds him of his duty to his regiment. After Lakmé returns, she senses the change in Gérald and realises that she has lost him. She dies with honour, rather than live with dishonor, killing herself by eating the poisonous datura leaf.
In conventional form and pleasant style, but given over to the fashion for exoticism, the delicate orchestration and melodic richness earned Delibes a success with audiences. The passionate elements of the opera are given warm and expressive music, while the score in general is marked by subtle harmonic colours and deft orchestration. Oriental colour is used in prayers, incantations, dances and the scene in the market.
The Act 2 aria "Où va la jeune Hindoue?" (the 'Bell Song') has long been a favourite recital piece for coloraturasopranos. (Recordings of it in Italian, as "Dov'e l'indiana bruna?", also exist.)
In recent years, the Flower Duet in Act 1 has become familiar more widely because of its use in advertisements, in particular a British Airways commercial, as well as in films. The aria sung by Lakme and Mallika was adapted for the theme "Aria on air" for the British Airways "face" advertisements of the 1980s by music composers Yanni and Malcolm McLaren.
- No. 1 Introduction: "À l'heure accoutumée (At the usual time)" (Nilakantha)
- Prière: "Blanche Dourga (White Durga)" (Lakmé, Nilakantha)
- No. 1 Bis – Scène: "Lakmé, c'est toi qui nous protège! (Lakmé, it is you who protect us!)" (Nilakantha, Lakmé)
- No. 2 – Duetto (The Flower Duet): "Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs ... Dôme épais, le jasmin (Come Mallika, the lianas in bloom ... The jasmine forms a dense dome)" (Lakmé, Mallika)
- Scène: "Miss Rose, Miss Ellen" (Gérald)
- No. 3 – Quintette & couplets: "Quand une femme est si jolie (When a woman is so pretty)" (Gérald)
- Récitatif: "Nous commettons un sacrilège (We are committing sacrilege)" (Gérald)
- No. 4 – Air: "Prendre le dessin d'un bijou (Make a drawing of a jewel)" (Gérald)
- No. 4 Bis – Scène: "Non! Je ne veux pas toucher (No! I do not want to touch)" (Gérald, Lakmé)
- No. 5 – Récitatif & Strophes: "Les fleurs me paraissent plus belles (The flowers appear more beautiful to me)" (Lakmé)
- No. 5 Bis – Récitatif: "Ah! Mallika! Mallika!" (Lakmé)
- No. 6 – Duo: "D'où viens-tu? Que veux-tu? (Where are you from? What do you want?)" (Lakmé, Gérald)
- No. 6 Bis – Scène: "Viens! Là! Là! (Come! There! There!)" (Nilakantha, Lakmé)
- No. 7 – Choeur & Scène du marche: "Allons, avant que midi sonne (Come before noon sounds)"
- No. 7 Bis – Récitatif: "Enfin! Nous aurons du silence! (Finally! We will have silence!)"
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Introduction
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Terana
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Rektah
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Persian
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Coda avec Choeurs
- No. 8 – Airs de danse: Sortie
- Récitatif: "Voyez donc ce vieillard (So see that old man)"
- No. 9 – Scène & Stances: "Ah! Ce vieillard encore! (Ah! That old man again!)" (Nilankantha, Lakmé)
- No. 9 Bis – Récitatif: "Ah! C'est de ta douleur (Ah! It's your pain)" (Lakmé, Nilankantha)
- No. 10 – Scène & Légende de la fille du Paria (Air des Clochettes/The Bell Song):
- "Ah!... Par les dieux inspires... Où va la jeune Hindoue (Ah... Inspired by the gods... Where is the Hindu girl going)" (Lakmé, Nilankantha)
- No. 11 – Scène: "La rage me dévore (Rage consumes me)" (Nilankantha, Lakmé)
- No. 12 – Scène & Choeur: "Au milieu des chants d'allegresse (Amid chants of cheerfulness)" (Nilankantha, Lakmé)
- No. 12 Bis – Récitatif: "Le maître ne pense qu'à sa vengeance (The master thinks only of his revenge)"
- No. 13 – Duo: "Lakmé! Lakmé! C'est toi! (Lakmé! Lakmé! It's you!)" (Lakmé, Gérald)
- No. 14 – Finale: "O Dourga, toi qui renais (O Durga, you who are reborn)" (Gérald)
- No. 15 – Berceuse: "Sous le ciel tout étoilé (Beneath the star-filled sky)" (Lakmé)
- No. 15 Bis – Récitatif: "Quel vague souvenir alourdit ma pensée? (What vague memory weighs down my thought?)" (Gérald, Lakmé)
- No. 16 – Cantilène: "Lakmé! Lakmé! Ah! Viens dans la forêt profonde (Lakmé! Lakmé! Ah! Come into the deep forest)" (Gérald)
- No. 17 – Scène & Choeur: "Là, je pourrai t'entendre (There I will be able to hear you)" (Lakmé, Gérald)
- No. 18 – Scène: "Vivant! (Alive!)" (Gérald)
- No. 19 – Duo: "Ils allaient deux à deux (They went two by two)" (Lakmé, Gérald)
- No. 20 – Finale: "C'est lui! C'est lui! (It's him! It's him!)" (Nilankantha, Lakmé, Gérald)
- 1940: Lily Pons (Lakmé), Armand Tokatyan (Gérald), Ezio Pinza (Nilakantha), Ira Petina (Mallika), New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Wilfrid Pelletier (conductor) (The Golden Age; live)
- 1952: Mado Robin (Lakmé), Libero de Luca (Gérald), Jacques Jansen (Frédéric), Jean Borthayre (Nilakantha), Agnés Disney (Mallika), Chœurs et Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Georges Sébastian (conductor) (Decca)
- 1967: Joan Sutherland (Lakmé), Alain Vanzo (Gérald), Gabriel Bacquier (Nilakantha), Jane Berbié (Mallika), Chœurs et Orchestre National de l'Opéra de Monte Carlo, Richard Bonynge (conductor) (Decca)
- 1970: Mady Mesplé (Lakmé), Charles Burles (Gérald), Roger Soyer (Nilakantha), Danielle Millet (Mallika), Chœurs et Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Alain Lombard (conductor) (EMI)
- 1998: Natalie Dessay (Lakmé), Gregory Kunde (Gérald), José van Dam (Nilakantha), Delphine Haidan (Mallika), Chœur et Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson (conductor) (EMI)
- 2012: Emma Matthews (Lakmé), Aldo di Toro (Gérald), Stephen Bennett (Nilakantha), Opera Australia Chorus and Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak (conductor) (Opera Australia OPOZ56021BD (Blu-ray), OPOZ56020DVD (DVD), OPOZ56022CD)
- ^Charles P. D. Cronin and Betje Black Klier (1996), "Théodore Pavie's "Les babouches du Brahmane" and the Story of Delibes's Lakmé", Opera Quarterly 12 (4): 19–33.
- ^ abc"Lakmé by Leo Delibes" on npr.org Retrieved 15 January 2011
- ^ abMacDonald H., "Lakmé", The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, London and New York: Macmillan: 1997.
- ^ abWolff S. Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique. André Bonne, Paris, 1953.
- ^Lacombe H., The Keys to French Opera in the Nineteenth Century, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.
- ^For example, The Hunger"'Horror! – Monsters, Witches & Vampires (Soundtrack)'". Silva America.
- ^"British Airways - Face". SplendAd. Archived from the original on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 26 March 2015.