Tuesday 13 February 2024

Pierre Loti's writings inspired Léo Delibes' opera Lakmé and a whole genre of Orientalist operas

Loti (right) with "Chrysanthème" and Pierre le Cor in Japan, 1885.
Loti (right) with Chrysanthème and Pierre le Cor in Japan, 1885.

Pierre Loti has a lot to answer for. Whilst he certainly did not invent Orientalisme, his exotic novels and short stories, inspired by his travels as a French naval office, fed into the Western European fascinating for the perceived exoticism of life in the East, and gave rise to a whole operatic genre. 

His 1880 book, Le Mariage de Loti (about his romantic liaison with an exotic Tahitian girl), inspired both the 1883 opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes,  and an 1898 opera by Reynaldo Hahn, L'île du rêve.

His 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème (about a naval officer temporarily married to a Japanese woman while he was stationed in Nagasaki, Japan) would be one of the inspirations behind  André Messager's 1893 opera of the same name, Mascagni's Iris (1898) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904).  

The fashion for things Japanese, Japonisme, had developed from the mid-1850s with opening up of Japan, and Saint-Saens' La princesse jaune (1872) is an early example of satirising the fad for all things Eastern.  Loti's books, with their deceptive element of reportage thanks to his travels as a naval officer, broadened the audience.

This fascination for all things exotic would come to a logical (and horrifying) conclusion when the exotic was brought back to the West in the form of live people. And the musical influences continued as well. The Japanese Village in Knightsbridge (which ran from 1885 to 1887) and involved 100 Japanese men and women living in a specially constructed village, may have influenced Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. Whilst in 1889, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, colonised people had their daily lives displayed for visitors, giving Debussy his first experience of the Balinese Gamelan.

Léo Delibes' Lakmé, however, has another layer of exoticism too in the form of the the novelty of exotically colonial English people and it is hero Gérald's desire to put country and duty above love that give the opera one of its engines.

Whilst the music from the opera remains well known, with the Bell Song being a popular coloratura showcase and the Flower Duet being virtually ubiquitous, performances are still rare. The opera reached Covent Garden in 1910, but the present company (formed after World War Two) has never staged the opera and its last major London outing seems to have been at Opera Holland Park in 2015 [see my review].

Delibes had quite a varied career, though he remains best known for his ballets, Coppelia and Sylvia. As a boy he sang in the première of Meyerbeer's Le prophète at the Paris Opéra in 1849. He wrote comic operas including for Offenbach's Bouffes-Parisiens, was a music critic, an accompanist and inspector of schools. It was his appointment as chorus master at the Paris Opera that brought about his two well-known ballets. His attempts at writing a serious opera were more mixed, but Lakmé, which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1883 soon had international success.

The good news is that Chelsea Opera Group is giving a concert performance of Lakmé at Cadogan Hall on Sunday 25 February 2024. Matthew Scott Rogers conducts with Haegee Lee as Lakmé, Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Gérald, James Platt as Nilakantha and Julien Van Mellaerts as Frédéric. Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

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