Leo Delibes: Lakme (1883)

Opera comique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 20 Minutes.

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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 *.

COMMENTS:

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!

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43 thoughts on “Leo Delibes: Lakme (1883)

    1. It can’t be for Lakme. It isn’t a fairy tale, nor a serious opera with some underlining philosophical agenda. It is a romantic fantasy, albeit technically based on Le mariage de Loti. You could criticize producing a romantic fantasy set in India during the British Raj on principle, but that would be too subjective and not really about either the music nor elements of the plot itself but about the genre.

      If we have to bring this back to Turandot it does have problems, Puccini overdeveloped Liu and his main characters are unlikeable. Delibes keeps his two protagonists as the main characters (they also get the best music) in spite of the existence of all the secondary characters, of which Lakme has about eight or nine. The sound world is also very traditional and for the most part very bright. Turandot is psychologically demanding and in the end it mocks reason with an ending too demented for science fiction. Although Lakme offs herself, it isn’t to a dramatic extreme as with Liu having a crowd of Chinese screaming “Il nome!” at her and the opera ends with her death, there is no reunion scene for Gerard and Ellen, we don’t know what happens next.

      Of course, we also don’t know if Turandot won’t turn black widow on Calaf and lop off his head days from now when her hormones realign. I always thought the best way to end the opera is at the kiss, but have Turandot stab Calaf to death and then walk away in cold dark silence. Anything to get away from that rehash of “Nessun Dorma”!

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    1. I generally agree; nice little thing, rather light, but a pleasant evening’s opera.

      Quibbles:

      Is neo-bel-cantism pretentious? How can the opera be simultaneously pretentious and conservative? Wouldn’t a pretentious opera be, say, Parsifal or Fervaal?

      Only one star for the flower duet (you’d have given it one if it hadn’t been famous, I take it?) and the bell song? I rather like the bazaar song – although it’s modelled on Auber.

      I *like* the “ornery” Dourga procession! Bom ba bom, bom bom ba bom!

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      1. I kept that from Forman to see if you were paying attention. HE didn’t like it. Actually I love the flower duet (it was more of a judgement on Forman, how could he give something so famous and well known just a star unless he had a fatwa on French music?), the bell song I’m okay with but I get Forman’s criticism of it being like back-stage at a Naples opera house.

        Instead of pretentious, I think we can agree that it is retro. But rather refreshingly so.

        Parsifal and Fervaal aren’t conservative? Well, read reactionary while being oddly musically innovative? Parsifal at least is the origin of almost all fantasy film scores.

        Meanwhile I’m listening to Polyeucte for some reason. Self torture probably. Why is this thing so awful? And to think it might have been burned!

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      2. The opera itself isn’t at all bad; the production is. Why is it awful? Because it’s sung by Italians who don’t know how to pronounce French.

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      3. Regarding the Flower Duet from Lakme, I said “too famous for just one star” because it was absurd of Forman to give it just one, it deserves at least two. I know he hated Lakme for some reason. I was probably too harsh on the Bell Song, but I do sort of see Forman’s point about it being vocal kitsch. Although defiantly not three stars, I might consider two.

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      4. Once I’ve done my 100th, there are some landmark operas I should review. Don Giovanni; Fidelio; Freischutz; Guillaume Tell; Muette de Portici; Huguenots; Juive; Norma; Lucia; Faust. Any others that leap to mind?

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      5. Nabucco, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Aida, Otello, Falstaff. Boris Godunov. Lohengrin, Meistersinger, Parsifal. Butterfly. Salome, Elektra, Rosenkavalier.

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      6. Yes, I did fall asleep. It might be the curse of the Met and a darkened theatre. I thought the Bruson production was fun 10 years before, though.

        Decadent? There’s nothing decadent about Salome; it’s all good, clean, family entertainment. A teenage girl making love to the severed head of John the Baptist, before her incestuous stepfather has her squashed – written by the period’s most notorious pillow-biter. And all in the Bible!

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      7. Actually, Salome is never named in the Bible she is simply “the daughter of Herodias”. We know from historical documents that her name was Salome. Her necrophilia and murder were made up by Oscar Wilde, she lived until at least 63 if not 71. You also forgot that she does a striptease for said stepfather and she tries unsuccessfully to seduce John the Baptist, oh and a palace guard in love with Salome commits suicide, on stage. It makes Massenet’s Herodiade seem like Dumbo in comparison.

        How is Saint Francois coming along?

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      8. Dumbo was shockingly risqué and avant-garde; it brought the horrors of alcoholic hallucination to a Prohibition-era American public. (The Lost Weekend appeared 4 years later.)

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    1. Latest review is up: Offenbach’s M. Choufleuri is up.

      Talking of dreary, the random selector just suggested Eugene Onegin. I refuse. It’s one of those bloody emotional, introspective operas, with a half-witted adolescent to boot. I saw the Met broadcast, and walked out at the interval. It’s in my operatic hell, along with Tristan and Madama Butterfly.

      I rerolled – and it gave me Gounod’s Polyeucte.

      🙂

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    2. The recording is nearly unlistenable. I got through 10 minutes in the car this morning, before switching to John Barry Bond music for the next hour. (As a journalist, I sometimes drive 3 hours a day. We cover four towns 120 km apart.)

      An opera written for one of the world’s top houses – performed by singers who are nowhere near the top, and none of whom can pronounce the language they’re supposed to be singing in. They ruin the line and rhythm.

      “Source délicieuse” is a beautiful aria.

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      1. I listened to it, twice! (Okay, second time I skipped the ballet). I actually found the orchestral work much worse than the vocalists. Hence my labeling it a gamma. It has three or four good bits (the third act finale is the best moment in the opera IMO), but otherwise I found it to be a sickly mess consisting of parody and milky sentimentality. There is something in the brass orchestration which I find incredibly irritating (maybe bassoons as well) and makes much of the score sound like a high school orchestra concert. I also went into a production by a university in England, but it sounded just as terrible so I am assuming that the opera is just rotten apart from the few good bits.

        I listened to the aria with Alagna singing it, it’s better but I’m not in love with it. If I do like it it is because Alagna is interpreting it, not the music itself.

        I figured since you live and work in Australia, all the major cities are four or five hours apart at least.

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      2. I looked at that English university production too. Do you think it’s fair to judge the opera by an amateur performance, filmed some way away?

        And Martina Franca recording standards aren’t great; their Robert le Diable is pretty awful. If one only knew Robert by that (rather than, say, one of the many, many stereo recordings, like um, blank, and pass), one’d rate it pretty low.

        The opera really needs Bru Zane or some quality *FRENCH* opera house with FRENCH singers singing FRENCH in a FRENCH style. Only then can we judge it.

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      3. Yeah, but Bru Zane won’t do it, it has already been given a release through Dynamic. Bru Zane only does virgin scores that have never been recorded before on principle. Polyeucte is already “impure”. Take my air quotes with an air of humour.

        It is fairly obvious that either Polyeucte has never been recorded properly using any medium or it really is a simply dreadful score that should have been consigned to the flames and you are simply indulging in Gounod-nostalgia.

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      4. They’ve done Herold’s Pré-aux-clercs, Salieri’s Danaides, Massenet’s Thérèse, and Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

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      5. I don’t know, Bru Zane couldn’t salvage Saint-Saens’ Proserpine, nor really Gounod’s Le tribut de Zamora. It isn’t a fool proof solution, some scores just are not that good.

        Also, what does this say of the reviewers who actually liked the Dynamic release? I get what you are saying about French declamation, but my problem wasn’t with the singers, it’s the orchestra. That could be due to one of two reasons, 1) the orchestra played poorly due to lack of skill or lack of proper rehearsal, or 2) the music just is mediocre. The fact that I could find some highlights in the score indicates to me that it is the quality of the score and not the way it was presented, but that is only my logical deduction.

        Granted, both performances are also of the four-act version, not the original five-act, which probably has never been performed since the 19th century. That might be attractive to Bru Zane and who knows, the original score might be better, given that Gounod was forced to rewrite it from scratch. I would assume that if I were re-composing an opera from memory, it wouldn’t come out as well as the original.

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      6. No, some scores are pretty mediocre. But we’re in a better position to judge their mediocrity if they’re performed well. Whereas a good opera performed mediocrely sounds mediocre.

        The critics of the time thought that the score was pretty good – but the libretto wasn’t.

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      7. I didn’t use that British production for the review. I just listened to it a couple of times to compare it to the Dynamic because I wanted a second look. It is possible that it might pull a “Carlo di Borgogna” on us that way but I have little faith (which considering that we are discussing Polyeucte is a little ironic). It also might not be to my taste either.

        Meanwhile, I’m really not digging Jolie fille, but being in act second (which I am told is the best) I won’t pass judgement until I get through it all.

        Maybe 5-act Polyeucte is better than 4-act Polyeucte? After all complete Das Liebesverbot is 10-times better than the edited ones.

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      8. It does not matter, the Omniscient Random Generator has ordered you to review Gounod’s Polyeucte, after you turned down Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It must be obeyed! Now, I never said you had to re-listen to the whole thing before writing the post… and technically it is already written… and I wouldn’t wish a re-listen of that Dynamic set on someone I hate much less someone I like.

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  1. Oh, I love Eugene Onegin! The Letter Scene, the Russian dances, “Kuda, Kuda, Kuda”, the….not much else. Okay, I will give you that it being Tchaikovsky all we get is a symphony and characters who do far less than the orchestra does. Listening to any Tchaikovsky opera is like listening to a mini-Russian Ring Cycle, the singers float on the sea of orchestral sound and there is incredibly little action. But, Tatiana is without equal his best characterization. Do you just having a thing against opera loveables? Liu, Adriana, Tatiana? Okay Cio-Cio San is a little annoying (and mentally handicapped, although is that last one really her fault?). 😦

    You dig incomplete weird gothic horror fairy tale smut like Turandot, but you snub introspective works like Eugene Onegin? You do know the final scene is based (however clumsily) on the Huguenots duet right?

    Ah, so you do actually hate a Puccini opera! Madama Butterfly is okay musically, but if you are criticism the plot I totally agree with you, it is bizarre even if we assume stereotypes about Japanese women. And the references to American culture are annoying (“American Forever” makes me cringe, and I’m from Pennsylvania!).

    However, interesting to learn about M. Choufleuri!

    And for you to listen to Polyeucte! I think that will end up in your operatic hell as well! I anticipate this review, although I’m terrified that you will love it and I’ll have to ask “Why?”.

    All Hail the Omniscient Random Generator/Sea Shell! 🙂 (Cue the final bars of Smetana’s Libuse). Now there is an opera I should review!

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  2. Also very true, it would do with the cutting of about 30 minutes of music, especially the noxious eight-minute intermezzo, and what is up with that Yamadori subplot? I’m also not thrilled about the humming chorus. The action could be done in one continuous act, as in on the same day without Butterfly going into an all-night vigil. It is an example of a thin plot being dangerously stretched too thin.

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