The West has been fascinated with the exotic Orient for aeons, and India in particular held a mystique all its own, going far back into the origins of the Spice Route.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this fascination spawned a whole clutch of operas centred around a rather phantasmagorical depiction of India far removed from reality.
Lakmé premiered 130 years ago at the Opéra Comique Paris. It is a three-act opera by French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1892), and its libretto is based on Theodore Pavie’s “Les babouches du Brahmane” and Pierre Loti’s semi-autobiographical “Le Mariage de Loti”.
Delibes is remembered more for his ballets (Coppélia and Sylvia), and he was at the heights of his powers when he wrote Lakmé at the age of 45. His admirers included Tchaikovsky and Debussy, and his death due to a stroke at 55 shocked the music world of his time.
The plotline (synopsis), like many operas, borders on the ludicrous and assumes imperialist and even racist overtones when viewed with the benefit of modern hindsight. Like so many others (Carmen, Tosca, Aida), this opera is titled after the story’s tragic ‘heroine’. As a general rule of thumb, if an opera is named after a woman, you can almost be certain it’s not going to end well for her. Operatic composers and librettists (and audiences as well?) seemed to have a sadomasochistic streak, tormenting and ultimately killing off the very focus of their desire and attention.
Back to Lakmé. The opera is set in late 19th century India. Lakmé is the daughter of Nilkantha, high priest of a temple, where the devout worship in secret under the British Raj. Lakmé and her maid Mallika are bathing in the holy river in the temple precincts (this is the setting of the ‘Flower duet’ made famous as the signature tune in the British Airways ad some decades ago) when they are seen by British officers Frederic and Gerald. Gerald and Lakmé soon fall crazily in love. Nilkantha discovers an infidel has defiled the temple and swears revenge.
He forces a reluctant Lakmé to sing a hypnotic melody (the famous ‘Bell song’) to draw out the culprit. Gerald falls under the spell and is wounded, but escapes to a hiding place where Lakmé furtively tends to him.
Lakmé goes to a magical spring whose water grants eternal love to any couple. When she returns, she sees that Gerald is no longer in love with her. ‘England expects every man to do his duty’, and falling for a ‘native’ isn’t on that list. Heartbroken, she eats a datura leaf to kill herself. It is only then that silly Gerald decides to drink the magic water, just as Nilkantha bursts in upon them, and Lakmé dies.
It is interesting that a French libretto should cast the story in India, and give the role of the ‘hero’ to an Englishman. Obviously the blow of the Battle of Plassey of 1757 that tilted the power balance in India in favour of the English, and against the French, had lost its sting in the collective French psyche a century later. It makes one wonder: does time eventually heal all wounds, even ‘national’ ones? Could the scars of the Indo-Pak conflict also someday be history, perhaps fifty or a hundred years from now?
We must also remember that Lakmé and the literary works that inspired it were written post- 1857. The Great War of Independence (which British historians even today term the Great Sepoy Mutiny) had shaken not just the British Empire, but all colonial Europe. As William Dalrymple points out in his book The White Mughals, after 1857, intermingling between the ruling class and ‘natives’ was very sternly frowned upon, in sharp contrast to the freer degree of contact before this. So this lends a particular frisson of ‘forbidden fruit’ to the tale of the star-crossed lovers, but with predictable bias: the Indian girl (and a Brahmin, at that) is mad keen about the English boy, who actually loves ‘Queen and country’ more than her, except when the spell cast by the magic water sways him. It seems unlikely that a libretto with the gender roles reversed would ever have seen light of day.
But if you put away your cynical monocle, you cannot fail to appreciate the opera for its artistic merit. Delibes’ score derives its beauty and drama from the strong interplay between the characters. Each of them has at least one, or more, defining solo moments.
If this has awakened your interest in Lakmé, type it into YouTube’s searchbar and you’ll have a lot to choose from. The first ‘hit’ is the whole opera, with Mady Mesplé (who incidentally is on the British Airways ad soundtrack) in the title role. Or if you prefer a ‘quickie’, hear Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca sing the Flower Duet, seven minutes of heaven.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 3 November 2013)