Ryan Brown, conductor
Marianne Fiset,* Lalla Roukh
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Noureddin
Nathalie Paulin, Mirza
Bernard Deletré, Baskir
David Newman, Bakbara
Andrew Adelsberger, Kaboul
The nineteenth century was an age of travel and trade (the steamship, the railroad) and improved communications (the telegraph). It was also an age of empire. Great Britain increased its hold on India, and France—coming late to the game—began to conquer one territory after another: first in North Africa, then in Southeast Asia as well. Soldiers, government officials, engineers and teachers left Europe to dwell in foreign lands, and they sent back from there, or returned from there later, with stories of a world different from any they had previously known. Meanwhile, foreign textiles, home furnishings, and objets d’art were imported into Europe from the Middle East and South and East Asia in increasing quantity.
Literature and the arts responded to this increased awareness of the distant lands and cultures with an outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, paintings, and book illustrations, all purporting to give a sense of what life was like in “the East” (or “the Orient”), a term that at the time could encompass any and all lands in the vast region stretching from North Africa, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula to South Asia, China, and Japan. Museumgoers today can sense this fascination thanks to the vivid canvases—by Ingres, Delacroix, and others—of harem women and Arab chieftains. Even when writers and painters had no personal knowledge of the lands that they were portraying, they often felt free to imitate the extravagant fables they had read in the Thousand and One Nights (first translated in 1707-14)—fables that, though written in Arabic, were sometimes set in lands located further to the east, such as Persia or India.
The world of opera, and especially French opera, participated actively in this trend of representing “the Orient” for Western consumption. Georges Bizet based his exquisite one-act Djamileh (1872) on a harem tale by Alfred de Musset. Léo Delibes’s fascinating Lakmé (1883) details a doomed love relationship between an English soldier and the daughter of a Brahmin priest. (“Lakmé” was presumably a simplification of the common Indian woman’s name Lakshmi.)
One of the pioneers of “musical Orientalism,” as it was sometimes called, was Félicien David (1810-76). In his early twenties, this shy musician from the village of Cadenet, near Aix-en-Provence, had traveled to Turkey and Egypt as a member of the Saint-Simonian movement, an early socialist (or “utopian socialist”) movement—roughly contemporaneous with the Fourierists and the Owenites—that attempted to persuade the viceroy of Egypt to cut a canal through the isthmus of Suez. The Saint-Simonians argued that improved trade between nations would create greater mutual dependence between peoples, and that this in turn would lessen tensions and prevent war. (The canal project was finally carried out three decades later by an international consortium of governments and banks.)
Upon the return to France of the Saint-Simonian missionaries, David began to publish piano pieces and songs based on melodies and drumbeat rhythms that he had heard in the Middle East. In December 1844, David made headlines in the Parisian and international musical press with the premiere of Le désert, a secular oratorio—but with spoken narration—that describes an Arab caravan, the wind-blown sands of the desert, and the delights of nighttime at an oasis. Le désert has recently been brought back to the attention of the music-loving public through a CD recording of a live performance in Berlin (1989).
Félicien David followed up Le désert with further works evoking locales that Westerners tended to perceive as exotic. These include two Biblical oratorios (one dealing with Moses on Sinai, the other with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden); a work—again with spoken narration—about Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean (this contains a “Dance of Savages” and a lullaby sung by a mère indienne); plus La perle du Brésil, whose central character is a native woman from South America in love with a Portuguese sailor. David’s non-exotic instrumental works—notably several piano trios, string quartets, and short pieces for string quintet—have recently been revived in concert and recorded on compact disc, to great acclaim. But arguably the strongest of his works is another exotic (or specifically “Orientalist”) opera, Lalla Roukh (1862), which, thanks to Opera Lafayette, is now receiving its first revival in perhaps a century or more.
Lalla Roukh—named for its main character—was based on a widely read literary work: Lalla Rookh, by the Irish poet (and friend of Lord Byron) Thomas Moore. The framework in Moore’s book is a prose tale about a Mughal—hence Muslim—princess of Delhi who travels to “Bucharia” (Bukhara, in what is today Uzbekistan) to meet the man to whom she is being given in marriage. Along the way, a minstrel named Feramorz sings four remarkable stories to her and gradually wins her love. (Moore wrote these four tales in verse rather than prose.) At the end of the journey, the princess learns to her delight that Feramorz was in fact the king of Bucharia in disguise. Moore comments in conclusion that the king, “having won her love as an humble minstrel[,] now amply deserved to enjoy it as a King” and adds that—in recollection of their travels together—the delighted Lalla Rookh “never called the King by any other name than Feramorz.”
Robert Schumann based an oratorio—Paradise and the Peri (1843)—on one of the book’s four tales-in-verse. The librettists of Lalla Roukh, Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, chose instead to adapt the basic prose narrative of the princess and the minstrel; they renamed the latter character Noureddin, and they removed all mention of Islam and the Mughals, thereby removing the plot from recent history and giving it more of a fairy-tale character. (The chamberlain Baskir several times invokes Brahma, thus clearly identifying himself as a believing Hindu.) Lalla Roukh was first performed in Paris in 1862 (at the Opéra Comique). Immediately recognized as a high-water mark in David’s varied career, it reached a hundred performances in less than a year. One music magazine reported that the piano-vocal score, published in a print run of 1000 copies, sold out the first morning that it was put on sale.
No other item in Lalla Roukh ever achieved the lasting fame of “Charmant oiseau,” an aria with flute obbligato (from La perle du Brésil) that was recorded over the
course of the 20th century by perhaps a dozen renowned sopranos, including Luisa Tetrazzini, Emma Calvé, Mado Robin, and, more recently, Sumi Jo. Yet the score of Lalla Roukh is studded with jewels. Frequently admired at the time were numbers involving the more or less comic “second couple”: Mirza, Lalla Roukh’s servant, and Baskir, the pompous and conniving chamberlain of the King of Bukhara. Baskir gets two tuneful strophic songs in which he can air his annoyance (“De près ou de loin”) and later his fear (“Ah! funeste ambassade”). Similarly, Mirza is given a set of attractive strophic couplets (teasing Baskir for being old and stupid: “Si vous ne savez plus charmer”).
Particularly enchanting is a comic duet (“Tout ira bien demain”) for Baskir and the minstrel Noureddin, in which the two develop—and chuckle over—a plan to dupe le grand roi de Buccharie. Since Noureddin is in fact that very king, the true dupe is Baskir, who demonstrates—to the audience as well as to his (unrecognized) master—just how untrustworthy he is. Opera lovers may be struck by the general similarity in musical manner between this duo-bouffe and one of the most marvelous comic ensembles in all of opera: the Act II Quintet in Bizet’s Carmen (1875) for that opera’s title character and the four Gypsy smugglers (“Nous avons en tête une affaire”). Both numbers contain a contrasting slow middle section that makes the return of the quick opening music (with words sung in “patter” style) sound even more breathless than before. Bizet was surely familiar with David’s work. Still, the resemblance may derive instead from the two composers’ reliance upon the norms of French comic operas and operettas of contemporary composers such as Auber and—beginning in the 1850s—Offenbach.
Perhaps envious of the attention that David kept getting, Auber was several times quoted as saying, “I wish he would come down from his camel!” In other words: is there more to David than gentle evocations of distant, half-imagined locales? The many strengths of David’s grand opera Herculanum (1859, set in ancient Rome) give a clear retort to Auber’s taunt. But so do the effective comic numbers in Lalla Roukh just mentioned, none of which is exotic in musical style.
The same is true of the title character’s two remarkable arias, each located near the beginning of its respective act: “Sous le feuillage sombre” and “O nuit d’amour.” The melodic lines in these two soprano arias are so beautifully shaped and so deftly harmonized and orchestrated that one wonders why they have not yet found their way into aria recitals and CDs. The emotional depth of David’s princess from Delhi is here made vividly manifest, leading us to care about her fate. Particularly ravishing is the opening vocal melody in the first aria: here a five-bar phrase is answered by a phrase of seven bars, as if to suggest the princess’s unconventionality and also her restlessness. Lalla Roukh’s unease is understandable: promised to a foreign king she has never met, she has gradually become aware of a lonely, eloquent man singing sweetly in her vicinity night after night. The second melodic phrase in her aria stretches beyond the first beat of the measure—“mes yeux ont | pu le voir”—thereby causing the music to flow onward, as if to signal her inner yearning.
The sincerely affectionate man who has been serenading Lalla Roukh is, of course, Noureddin (i.e., the king of Bukhara). Perhaps because he is trying so hard to sound like an Indian of modest birth, the composer gives him a vocal solo tinged with striking fake-Easternisms typical of French works of the period that were set in the Middle East, Central Asia, or India. This romance, “Ma maitresse a quitté la tente”—performed by Noureddin at Lalla Roukh’s command—serves as the centerpiece of an extended scene-complex in the middle of Act 1. (In Act 2 Noureddin will croon a no less attractive barcarolle: “O! ma maîtresse.”) We may take this exotic style—with its rapid drum-like rhythms on the downbeat, its long-unchanging pedal notes (on the tonic, the dominant, or an open fifth), and its decorative use of chromatic motion (here assigned to the orchestra)—as an identifying musical marker of lower-class (or low-caste) Easternness. Many of the same stylistic features are found in the sonorous chorus for the princess’s slaves serving the evening meal that begins and ends the same scene (“Voici le repas du soir”). Certain of the same exotic features recur strikingly in the Act 1 ballet numbers. Here the incessant drumming rhythms tend to be emphasized by tambourine, and quirky melodic phrases are sometimes assigned to a solo oboe, as if in imitation of a “nasal”-sounding instrument such as Middle Eastern and Indian snake charmers, at the time, were often shown as playing.
“Oriental” style-features crop up again in the orchestral accompaniment of a section of the love duet for Lalla Roukh and Noureddin (at the words “Charmante vallée, de fleurs étoilée”: Charming valley, star-studded with flowers). The orchestra’s “decision” to add this coloration to music being sung by Lalla Roukh and then echoed by Noureddin announces that these two people, despite surface differences, are kindred spirits and hints that Lalla Roukh will eventually find the strength to declare to the world her love for the lowly singer of tales. The elaborate duet continues with a powerful declaration by Noureddin to the words “Ah! je ne suis, hélas, qu’un pauvre poète!” (Alas, I am but a poor poet!). Noureddin’s melody here resembles tunes assigned by Donizetti to certain of his tenor heroes (e.g., Edgardo’s final cabaletta in Lucia di Lammermoor: “Tu che a Dio spiegasti gl’ali”). Presumably the composer wished thereby to emphasize Noureddin’s sincere devotion to this woman who—he asserts—is far above his modest station in life. If Noureddin’s first solo identified him as a lower-caste “Oriental,” this spirited cry of Italianate dolore helps us feel that he—that is, the king, under the minstrel’s disguise—fully deserves the love of the Indian princess.
That David’s opera will unfurl in a magical locale is made plain by music that is heard the moment the curtain goes up. As the eye is struck by the sets and costumes (in the original production, this included a painted backdrop of Himalayan peaks and, more oddly, banana trees), David’s music, too, creates an effect of distant Otherness—achieved, again, without exotic musical devices. The princess’s servants marvel at this bountiful land in which, tired from the journey, they can stop for the night (“C’est ici le pays des roses”: Here is the land of roses), and their tune, as gracious and shapely as any in 19th-century light opera, beckons us into the special, half-imaginary world devised by Moore and the Parisian librettists.
In this mystery land David’s contemporaries were delighted to linger. Opera lovers today may well feel the same. Lalla Roukh has waited far too long to be rediscovered. Léon Durocher—reviewing the first production in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris—was absolutely right: “Everything in it is fine, distinguished, noble, and elegant. Melody flows copiously, and the harmony is always simple and natural, yet never commonplace. The orchestration spreads ingenious and splendid colorations before our eyes (so to speak).” What a delight to welcome this opera back from the dusty shelves to which it has been too long consigned!