Lakmé: Orientalism and the triumph of the coloratura

Article by Antony Lias

Perfumed and exotic – two of the most appropriate adjectives to describe Delibes’ foray into that favourite traverse of 19th century composers, the orient. All things eastern were highly fashionable in 19th century Europe, leaving an indelible fingerprint across the arts. Opera was no exception, particularly in France, where following the decline of the bloated spectacle that was grand opera, you could enjoy Massenet’s gloriously over the top Le roi de Lahore, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles and Adam’s Si, j’étais roi, works which celebrate the romanticised notion of the “east”. Delibes’ bitter-sweet confection was very much in keeping with contemporary tastes, debuting to great success at the Opéra-Comique on the 14th April 1883 and ratcheting up over 1600 performances at the Salle Favart ever since, making it anything but an exotic rarity.

Orientalism is one thing, but the public were also fascinated with the age of empire and particularly colonialization. France had extensive territories of its own, but Britain’s jewel in the crown, India, was of particular fascination. This age of empire led to a change in how the Brit in opera was perceived; less a mere caricature as seen in the likes of Fra Diavolo – a furtive cipher, rendered reductio ad absurdum, and more akin to the lead protagonist, a shaper of drama and narrative not necessarily in a positive light, but one which doesn’t cast too much opprobrium on the transgressions of colonial expansion.

Rather like much screenwriting today, the fingerprints of many can be found over the plot. It’s based on Théodore Pavie’s Les babouches du Brahmane and Pierre Loti’s very fashionable Le mariage de Loti. The libretto was assembled by critics/journalists who contributed regularly to Le Figaro: Edmond Gondinet, Philippe Gille (known as ‘The Iron Mask’) and Arnold Mortier (known as ‘A gentleman in the orchestra’) who apparently did not wish his name to appear on the bill. It’s a creation very much of its period and it spoke to the literary tastes of the citizens of the Third Republic, helping to secure Delibes a major success.

Set at the time of the British Raj in India against a backdrop of colonial suppression of religious traditions, it’s a love story with a tragic ending. The high priest Nilakantha and his followers are forced to practice Hinduism in secret following a British decree outlawing its worship. A chance meeting between Lakmé (the daughter of the High Priest) and Gérald, a British officer out sketching whilst on a picnic, leads to Gérald falling madly in love with Lakmé. The High Priest swears vengeance upon the British officer who would dare defile their sacred land. In an attempt to discover the identity of the profaning Brit, Nilakantha orders his daughter to publicly sing the ‘Bell Song’. Gérald is lured by Lakmé’s ethereal tones and is promptly seized and stabbed. However, he is not mortally wounded and escapes with Lakmé, who nurses him back to health.

Later, the couple hear singing in the distance, which Lakmé presumes to be a pair of lovers seeking out a magical spring whose waters bestow eternal love. She departs to bring the water to Gérald, but in her absence, an officer called Frédéric has found their hiding place and reminds Gérald of his duty to his country. Upon her return, Gérald refuses to drink the water she has brought him. In the knowledge that he has changed, Lakmé eats a leaf from the datura tree and dies. No happy ending here, but it’s a clear, concise and relatively baffle-free plot.

Admittedly, Lakmé is infrequently performed outside of France, despite its undeniable musical attractions. It was last performed in London, to the best of my knowledge, by none other than Opera Holland Park in 2007 and prior to that, Chelsea Opera in 2002. It begs the question, therefore: why is it so seldom performed today? The plot is a good deal less insane than many of its contemporaries and it’s positively bulging with musical treats. Perhaps the rarity label is down to nothing more than finding someone who can either successfully take on the mantle of this very demanding title role, or one who is game enough to try her luck and hope for a not too disastrous outcome. The plucky opera company that chooses to stage Lakmé needs to secure the services of a soprano with a seemingly broad vocal talent.

Musically is where this opera triumphs. Naturally everyone is expecting me to wax lyrical about the celebrated ‘Flower Duet’, that sumptuous blending of soprano and mezzo. Yes, it is a beautiful and ethereal concoction, the Île flottante of opera, but hidden within this luscious, flowery score is a far more sparkly gem indeed. The ‘air des clochettes’ in Act II, more commonly known as the Bell Song, is a triumph of vocal pyrotechnics. It is indisputably one of the most demanding pieces in the entire repertoire for that breed of soprano who enjoys it most where the air is thinnest, the coloratura.

It has been a party piece of coloratura sopranos ever since it was first composed. Hundreds of recordings exist (the earliest by Maria Barrientos in 1904), most of which contain faults of one type or another, but it’s an irresistible challenge to those with a penchant for heady scale work, pinpoint staccati and climactic high notes. The rewards are high if you pull it off with aplomb.

The way to approach this aria is to consider it as being made up of three constituent musical parts. The first, a vocalise of sorts, is an almost unaccompanied melisma of naked singing, as the soprano intones her aria with hypnotic sensualism. A furious cascade of notes hurtles the voice up to the first of her three high Es. Then we have the main body of the aria beginning “Où va la jeune Indoue?” followed by the final stage made up of two verses where we hear bell-like vocal acrobatics. The range of the aria isn’t particularly extensive, but it does sit very high, thereby making it uncomfortable singing for most sopranos. The highest note as written is a staccato D#, but performance tradition dictates that the soprano reaches ever higher. Ellen Beach Yaw, Erna Sack and Frieda Hempel reach a heady but miniscule high F#, Mado Robin, arguably the possessor of the highest notes in operatic history, hits a blindingly good sustained high G# with plenty of resonance. Dessay does likewise but with less bite and more acid and others have repeated these daredevil antics with generally less success. Whether high E or G#, it is almost irrelevant, as the real test are those damn pesky trills.

There are plenty of commercial and live recordings of this celebrated aria around, but few that I would say fall into the accomplished category and are worth more than a token listening. Acceptable describes the usual fare. Tetrazzini sings some wonderful staccati, but the downward scales are clumsy to say the least. Callas shows us the marvels of hearing a bigger, fuller, more dramatic voice in the repertory, but there is something very laboured and sluggish about it, the sense that she is only just keeping within the boundaries of acceptable intonation. The staccati sound like a deflating bagpipe and the trills are smudged. Honourable mentions go to Galli Curci, Pons, Moffo, Kurz, Robin and Dessay, whilst the ageless Devia delivers a masterclass in technical precision. But it is Dame Joan Sutherland’s first attempt which sets the benchmark performance. Easily the biggest voice to record the aria, but in 1960 it was also fresh and girlish, unmarred by her later mooning manner. The power is contained throughout and then unleashed with furious abandon. The final colossal high E (almost too big to be fully captured by the microphones) is detonated like an explosion. The pinpoint staccati are stunning and that peerless trill devastating in its speed, beauty and articulation – flawless.

The joy of Lakmé is that it is an opera which continually rewards the listener with ever flowing musical gems. Whether your weakness is for jawdropping cascades of notes, intricately moulded duets or superb orchestration, it’s an opera ripe for the experience. Opera Holland Park is once again promising us yet another musical thrill via a trip to the orient.

Antony Lias is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Opera Britannia, a review service specialising in covering UK and International opera performances