Lakmé

By Robert Thicknesse, 2007

If orientalism was a love affair, somebody got dumped on September 11th 2001. The West, besotted with the soft delights of the East, doting on oneiric imaginings of odalisques and harems, minarets and vaulted bazaars, gorgeous wealth and Kubla Khan, was suddenly faced with the fact that its inamorata had turned into some kind of shrieking harridan with a strong anti-sex agenda and a serious problem with our slovenly chauvinist ways.

The Orient has always represented a place where the most lurid dreams could be brought to reality with impunity.  It was at once irresistibly alluring and repulsive, a love island where the natives were blessed with libidos warmed in the sun’s rays and none of the self-imposed inhibitions that came with the pragmatic demands of building mercantile empires and living out the ascetic, self-denying philosophies we had dreamed up for ourselves.  Those stuck back home in European rain watched with censorious envy as the lucky few indulged themselves in Rocky Horror levels of sensual delight.  Caesar was despised for becoming mollis in the Egyptian heat, but a disorderly queue formed behind him to take up when he’d done with Cleo.  Crusaders went righteously off to win back the holy places from presumptuous infidels, found they rather liked their ways and stayed on.  The Normans drove the Saracens from Sicily but adopted their dress and perfumed lives.  Everyone was terrified of the Ottomans and their exotically atrocious torture techniques but wouldn’t have minded a crack at one of those harems.

With the growth of European empires in the 18th century a certain democratisation crept into the relationship: the political penetration of the East opened the way for soldiers, traders and civil servants to explore more physical varieties.  This was helped along by the serious inroads being made into Judeo-Christianity’s claims to a monopoly on truth and a consequent loosening of its strictures.  Linguistic pioneers began to establish that there were languages – notably Sanskrit – which predated Hebrew, and therefore that it cannot have been the language spoken in Eden.  People began to notice the surprising similarity of stories that cropped up both in the Old Testament and the Greek myths, such as the sacrifices of Isaac and Iphigeneia.

But the European Enlightenment was a serious-minded creature and preferred to use the Orient as a moral didactic lesson: Montesquieu and Samuel Johnson wrote their Oriental tales – as Swift had written Gulliver – as satires on European ways.  It required the self-indulgent sensibilities of the Romantics to fully realise the possibilities inherent in this realm of the senses, and one of the first to do so was William Beckford, the bisexual fantasist of Fonthill.

It was a fateful day when young William discovered the Arabian Nights in his father’s library; it would lead fairly directly to his own Oriental tale, Vathek, a vivid dream of sex, incest, torture and death that set the tone for much of what was to follow.  One story in the Arabian Nights seems to have particularly excited him: the tale of Schahzenan, King of Grand Tartary, a fellow constrained to chop his wife and her lover into little bits when he discovered them in bed.  Later, visiting his friend the King of the Indies, Schahzenan looks out of his bedroom window to see the queen and her ladies whooping it up at an orgy with their black slaves – pretty much all the nightmares of proper Protestant Christianity come true at once.  No wonder William was excited.

One of the great things about “the Orient” was that it started and finished wherever you liked.   For The English it was centred on India, for the French, Egypt, following Napoleon’s efforts to discover the origins of civilisation there.

If the French Revolution promised, among its other attractive features, a breaking of sexual constraints, it was a short-lived dream soon forgotten in a welter of mumsy Empire-line dresses and the reactionary stodge of post-Napoleonic Europe.  After 1848 and the advent of the Second Empire, Paris became the world’s biggest cathouse, but how to get by in the meantime?  Happily, an answer was at hand.  The Orient became the destination of choice for a flood of pleasure seekers – the Second Life of its time, without the need to reinvent yourself as a pink unicorn to indulge your fantasies.  The motivation was certainly primarily sexual, but it was an added incentive, particularly for the French, that nobody seemed to pay much attention to such details as orientation (or even species-preference) which exercised society and the church back home so much.  Girls, boys, goats, everything could be had for the asking.  Gustave Flaubert, visiting Cairo in 1849, caught the flavour of the place well: ‘To amuse the crowd, Muhammad Ali’s jester took a woman in a Cairo bazaar one day, set her on the counter of a shop, and coupled with her publicly while the shopkeeper calmly smoked his pipe’.

One of the great things about “the Orient” was that it started and finished wherever you liked.  For The English it was centred on India, for the French, Egypt, following Napoleon’s efforts to discover the origins of civilisation there.  The presence of Muslims helped, obviously, but was not obligatory.  It was partly a function of empire, and partly not.  In short, everywhere from Morocco and Bosnia to Polynesia was fair game.

It was a big playground, and nobody took greater advantage of it than Pierre Loti, the French writer and naval officer whose novel Rarahu, ou le mariage de Loti is usually described as the basis of Lakmé’s libretto.  He’s an unfashionable figure now, with his flowery prose and post-Romantic indulgences which never quite amount to any kind of interesting Baudelairean decadence, but in his time Loti (pen name of Julien Viaud) was the rage of all Europe with his drippingly fainéant romantic travelogues, purporting to tell the tales of the girl-in-every-port whose charms this hyperactive seaman investigated and documented.  His slightly shame-faced fans included Henry James (who perceptively said “Loti performs so beautifully as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains, or what he doesn’t…”), Ernest Renan, Sacha Guitry and many others who happily submerged themselves in his scented, dreamy narratives.  If you wish you can still take a sundowner at the Pierre Loti café in Istanbul, with its views over the Golden Horn to Galata: Turkey became his second home, and in fact he was rather more loyal to it than he was to France.

Among Loti’s tales is Madame Chrysanthème, the original story behind Puccini’s Butterfly.  For six months Loti’s ship, the Triomphante, was anchored in the roads of Nagasaki, and he took advantage to contract a temporary marriage with the said Chrysanthemum, half-geisha, half-prostitute, in a leasehold arrangement certainly devised with the help of the girl’s family.  Emotion didn’t enter the equation, and both parties moved on happily once it was over.  A monument to this unromantic episode was erected in Nagasaki in 1950.  It is worth noting that Loti’s work has been described as exhibiting a “gross misunderstanding” of the cultures he encountered.

By Loti’s time (he was born in 1850) the French and British had more or less parcelled out Asia between them, and one of the places that had wound up French was Tahiti.  And this was the destination of Loti’s first voyage, and the site of the romance that was to lead, in a roundabout way, to the opera Lakmé.  Rarahu, the enchanting creature at its centre, has just turned 14, so is clearly ripe for the affections of the diminutive, high-heel wearing Frenchman.  Strangely enough, in the book the lifelong Anglophobe Viaud calls himself Midshipman Harry Grant, from Yorkshire, and much of the narrative takes place in his letters home to his sister.  It is in Tahiti that Viaud/Grant assumes his new moniker; the Polynesians, tired of trying to pronounce his barbarous name, re-christen him with the name of a flower (actually roti, meaning rose).

Nothing happens in Rarahu, just a series of dreamlike trysts amid luxuriating tropical vegetation, as Loti proceeds to debauch his child-bride.  In the end his ship sails off into the blue with Loti nursing his broken heart, which turns out to mend pretty easily.  Years later he learns that little Rarahu has turned into a raddled, alcoholic nympho, turning tricks down at the docks at 50 sous a go.  This is a recurrent fantasy in Loti’s writings, as one woman (or pre-teen) after another finds herself understandably ruined for anyone else by the incomparable charms and sexual techniques of this latter-day Zeus.

The stories sound too good to be true, don’t they? And they are: it is no surprise to discover that Loti was homosexual.  In 1892, when Loti was elevated to the Académie Française, Edmond de Goncourt noted “this author, whose love, in his first book [Aziyadé, purportedly about his affair with an Istanbul concubine], was a Monsieur.” And once you decode Loti’s œuvre for the series of fairly sordid rent-boy episodes it documents, it falls neatly into the paradigm of French colonialism from Napoleon to André Gide, which has been described as “more a pathological dominatory fantasy than a physical phenomenon, expressed in a fever of erotic frenzy – albeit not generally directed towards the young ladies of the colonies”.

Attentive reader, you will have noticed one more thing: Lakmé bears hardly even a passing resemblance to Rarahu, aside from its exotic location and the ruination of a young girl.  In fact it seems to be one of the strangest misattributions in the literature of opera, and one which is slavishly reproduced whenever Delibes’s opera is performed.  It seems that few people have bothered to wonder why the opera is set not in Tahiti but in India; true, the protagonists in both are “English” members of the military, but Rarahu contains no rebel priests, no breaking of taboos, no revenge conspiracies, no near-fatal woundings, no poisonous datura flowers and no pubescent goddesses.

In fact it seems a great deal more likely that Delibes’s librettists Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille took their subject from the writings of another, far better but less well-known French Orientalist called Théodore de Pavie, who spent two years in India from 1839 and later produced a book of short stories, Scènes et récits des pays d’outre-mer, one of which contains a beautiful Mallika, one a group of “brides of Vishnu” or lakshmis, and one (Les babouches du Brahmane) a rebel Brahmin called Nilakantha who relentlessly pursues a young Englishman who has dared to set eyes on him and his beautiful daughter.  The confusion arose, apparently, when Delibes read Rarahu, was enchanted by it, and sent a telegram to Gondinet suggesting it as the basis for a libretto.  Loti was away from Paris when the opera was premiered in 1883 and was therefore unable to correct the misattribution.  What is odder is that nobody else seems to have noticed either.

Or, perhaps, not so odd.  Especially in opera, Orientalism is about the meeting of a rigid, aseptic, sceptical Europe with a passionate, religious, sensual – and wholly fictitious – East.  The musical idiom is pretty much the same whether the “place” represented is ancient Palestine (Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila), Ceylon or generalised Araby (Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and Djamileh), Africa (Meyerbeer’s L’africaine), Egypt (Massenet’s Thaïs), or even Spain, which admittedly got pretty vivid treatment in Bizet’s Carmen.  Opera is art as untamed id, the exploration of what happens when we follow our desires with no heed for the disasters that will inevitably follow.  In the end it hardly matters whether the location is one of Handel’s magic islands or a Parisian garret, though a bit of local colour always goes down well.  The result is the same: people discover their true selves and become human, then they die.  Arguably (and generously) they do this both for our entertainment and so that we won’t have to do it ourselves.  The piquancy of Lakmé is not merely that she is a woman dying for love – that is the daily bread of opera – but that she is dusky and barely pubescent too, not to mention an incipient goddess.  Like Loti, we can wipe away a comforting, sentimental tear – and move swiftly on to our next victim.