Opera comique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 20 Minutes.
This is apparently my 200th post!
SETTING: India, mid to late 19th century. The one where a Hindu priestess falls fatally in love with a British officer whom her father wants to kill.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A sacred grove that happens to be on the estate of one Nilakantha, the leader of a secret Hindu cultus.
0: The prelude *, sort of a précis of most of the major hits of the evening (Drouga!, Nilakantha’s wrath, the love of Lakme and Gerard). None of these are leitmotifs, so get that idea out of your head, it just gets us into the mood that we are settling down into a bit of orientalist fantasy.
6: After a soft if tuneful chorus and some opening service remarks from Nilakantha we have Lakme’s prayer * which sets us up for another bit of interest in the opera: its pretentious neo-bel canto-ism.
10: A lovely tune comes in here when Nilkantha addresses Lakme but it disappears as quickly as it came * and we almost totally forget it by the time all the ensemble disperses post-ritual.
14: The famous, the one and only barcarolle duet ** for Lakme and her companion Malika as they prepare to go on a boat to bathe up river. Too famous to be a one star item.
21: My personal favourite, the “European and Indian women are polar opposites” ensemble from the Britishers ** who have committed house invasion. Like everything else in the opera it bogs into two arias for Frederic and Ellen but it comes back in the end for one last fine ride.
29: Gerard stays behind to make a sketch of Lakme’s jewelry for Ellen as a wedding present and he embarks on an aimless fantasy ** much of it about Lakme who he has yet to see. Lakme and Malika return from their trip and
37: Lakme’s lovely happy song **.
44: Lakme spots Gerard from his hiding place, she tells him to get out but he wins her over with a weird five-finger exercise from the lower strings and then hits the jackpot with the best tune in the entire piece *** as he asks “Which god?” of her. Eventually he does leave and just in time too because her father declares jihad (or whatever Hindus have for holy war) on Gerard for entering the sacred grove.
ACT 2: A bazaar.
0: The entr’acte * is an amusing fife routine that moves on to the strings, and then the brass before returning to the fife, it is adorable.
1: The bazaar chorus is, well bizarre *, Mistress Benson gets harassed by merchants of various ethnicities and Frederic makes a wise crack about the sexual experience of bayarder dancers.
7: Not a particularly big surprise, but the ballet in an opera written by a man famous for writing ballets is rather good **. Three dances, the last of which is half-way to the Polotvitsian dances in Prince Igor.
16: Nilakantha’s melodious ultimatum to Lakme ** is incredibly noble.
23: And now we come to what you have all been waiting for, the Bell Song **. Mostly it consists of Italianate bel-canto-ing soprano coloratura with a vague narrative about a young Untouchable girl who becomes the lover of Vishnu after rescuing him. Incredibly famous, at least it once was, but isn’t it really just a kitschy vocal display? Much of it consists of a vocal gymnastics course which, if pulled off successfully, can bewitch. Apparently it isn’t enough to get Gerard to show himself so Nilakantha forces her to strike it up again in a rather ornery fashion. Interestingly, the first repeated music in the opera occurs where when we get the fifes back.
33: Now a rather menacing bit when Nilakantha plots with conspirators to murder Gerard **.
41: The love duet Lakme-Gerard is a lovely piece, but apart from Gerard’s ardent protestations (including to the love theme from the overture) it really warms up with Lakme’s account of a secret love nest in the jungle **.
51: The choral processional with the statue of Drouga is decidedly ornery, although it gets interrupted by the Britishers leading to the attempted assassination of Gerard. Lakme finds that he is not dead and has Hadji take him to the forest love nest to the theme from the earlier duet *.
ACT 3: A love nest in the jungle.
0: Delibes milks this jungle love nest theme to death in a lovely entr’acte **.
9: Lakme sings a very sad song while Gerard sleeps but his aria is by far the best in the entire opera ***.
12: The chorus of lovers * going to the sacred spring. Lakme goes off to get some of this water and while she is out, Frederic finds Gerard. Lakme comes back with sacred spring water and realizes that she will lose Gerard so she eats the leaves of a poisonous plant near by.
27, 32: The break up duet ends up being interrupted by a distant regiment on walking duty (for some reason in the jungle?) but eventually Lakme takes the reigns again although the most interesting thing is this rising spiral tune from Gerard which for some reason never gets anywhere *. Nilakantha arrives ready to kill Gerard but Lakme reveals that she has ingested a poisonous plant and is dying. She demands that her father forget his revenge on the man she considers her husband now that he has drunk the sacred water of the lovers’ spring and dies *.
The best way to take in Lakme is as an undemanding oriental romance. Yes, it is very tempting to use racial and post-colonial theory to interpret it but these will only make you enjoy the work less and you would be missing out on some lovely calm moments. It is true that almost none of the tunes last more than a dozen bars and that there is incredibly little repetition until about half-way into the second act, but what there is here is very entertaining. Although from 1883 and obviously having oriental pretensions, the score is remarkably conservative, even reactionary, basically as if Wagner had never existed and French opera had not changed from the days of Auber. The livret is constructed as a series of twenty numbers, there is no through-composed music drama here. The orchestra does nothing except accompany the singers, there are no attempts at philosophy and what religion is referenced (mostly Hinduism) is mostly mocked (which probably isn’t really that great). How do we know this is meant as mild orientalist entertainment in the opera comique style? First the casting: there are only one each bass-baritone and baritone roles contrasted with two tenors, two mezzos, and three sopranos, everyone knows that serious operas don’t have such a tendency towards the upper range (at least not in the late-19th century). Second, the music itself is retro, the only exotic thing about it is the orientalist setting, thus, the opera itself should not be taken too seriously. Third, the voice dominates everything, especially the the soprano and tenor leads who essentially mop the floor up with their good tunes, and there are moments (especially in act one) that are total parlando (speak over music). Lakme is a work meant to be enjoyed, not pondered. A Wagnerian probably does not understand such things but for the rest of us Lakme herself is just a darling. Overall a B+, certainly not the gamma that Sir Denis gave it!