Friday, May 18, 2007


Lakmé is an exotically tragic opera by Delibes. The story is along the same lines as Puccini's Madama Butterfly, except that the British officer in Lakmé is not quite so despicable as Pinkerton in Butterfly. He does not intend to bring harm to the Indian girl who has captivated his affections, but cultural differences doom the relationship, in spite of his good intentions. It is another instance of Christians behaving not quite as well as they could in a non-Christian land, but it also shows the harshness of the pagan belief system. Here is a synopsis:

The story is set in the late nineteenth century British Raj in India. Many Hindus have been forced by the British to practice their religion in secret. Gérald, a British officer, accidentally trespasses on the grounds of a sacred Brahmin temple. He encounters Lakmé (which derives from the Sanskrit Lakshmi), the daughter of the high priest, Nilakantha. Gérald and Lakmé fall in love. Nilakantha learns of the British officer's trespassing and vows revenge on the man who has blasphemed the sacred Brahmin temple.

At a bazaar, Nilakantha forces Lakmé to sing (Bell Song) in order to lure the trespasser into identifying himself. When Gérald steps forward, Lakmé faints, thus giving him away. Nilakantha stabs Gérald, wounding him. Lakmé brings Gérald to a secret hideout in the forest where she nurses him back to health.

While Lakmé fetches sacred water that will confirm the vows of the lovers, Fréderic, a fellow British officer, appears before Gérald and reminds him of his duty to his regiment. After Lakmé returns, she senses the change in Gérald and realizes that she has lost him. She dies with honor, rather than live with dishonor, killing herself by eating the poisonous datura leaf.

The most famous songs from Lakmé are the famous and exquisite "Flower duet" and the "Bell Song," which many people recognize even if they have never seen the opera. It is not performed all that often, but Lakmé is compelling because it shows how paganism is not always as benign and tolerant as many today would have us believe. The prejudice and hatred of Lakmé's father and Lakmé's "honorable" decision to take her own life reflect the propensity towards murder and suicide still alive in the present world.


Anonymous said...

It is a beautiful opera and should be preformed more. Yes, I agree that it bears the flaws humans interject into their religions, and the contempt Westerners have for Eastern religions. Thanks, Elena, for the review. I love reading your reviews of books, theater and film.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, alaughland! Remember when we saw "Lakmé" at the Lyric, from our favorite seats in the rafters? That was a lovely performance.