Delibes on stage and TV

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Saturday, April 14, 2018

A number of the quintessentially “French” operas are set in other lands. Bizet’s “Carmen” is set in Spain and Gounod’s ”Faust” is in Germany, to cite just two examples. But Spain and Germany were familiar next-door neighbors for 19th century Frenchmen, and in that colonizing age, Parisian audiences also enjoyed traveling to much more exotic corners, all the while safely ensconced in their plush balcony seats, of course. One of the grandest of French grand operas, Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine,” has as its eponymous heroine the African Queen of an imaginary East Indian isle, with none other than European Vasco da Gama as her love interest.

Another famous French opera set in the mysterious East had its premiere performance on today’s date in 1883, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. This was “Lakmé” by Leo Delibes. In this one, the title heroine is an East Indian priestess of Brahma whose taboo love for an English Colonial officer leads to tragedy and death—but not before lots of gorgeous singing.

The popular “Flower Duet” from “Lakmé” achieved a particularly late 20th-century brand of fame when it was used as the soundtrack to a British Airways TV commercial.