Lakmé is the daughter of Nilakantha, a fanatical Brahmin priest, who has withdrawn to a ruined temple deep in an Indian forest. In his retreat the old man nurses his wrath against the British invader, prays assiduously to Brahma (thus contributing a fascinating Oriental mood to the opening of the opera), and waits for the time to come when he shall be able to wreak his revenge on the despoilers of his country. Lakmé sings Oriental duets with her slave, Mallika:
Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin A la rose s’assemble, Sur la rive en fleurs, riant au matin Viens, descendons ensemble
a dreamy, sense-ensnaring, hypnotic barcarole. The opera opens well ; by this time the composer has carried us deep into the jungle. The Occident is rude : Gerald, an English officer, breaks through a bamboo fence and makes love to Lakmé, who, though widely separated from her operatic colleagues from an ethnological point of view like Elsa and Senta, to expedite the action requites the passion instanter. After the Englishman is gone the father returns and, with an Oriental’s cunning which does him credit, deduces from the broken fence that an Englishman has profaned the sacred spot. This is the business of Act I. In Act II the father, disguised as a beggar who holds a dagger ever in readiness, and his daughter, disguised as a street singer, visit a town market in search of the profaner. The business is not to Lakmé’s taste, but it is not for the like of her to neglect the opportunity offered to win applause with the legend of the pariah’s daughter, with its tintinnabulatory charm :
Ou va la jeune Hindoue Fille des parias ; Quand la lune se joue Dans les grand mimosas?
It is the “Bell song,” which has tinkled so often in our concert-rooms. Gerald recognizes the singer despite her disguise ; and Nilakantha recognizes him as the despoiler of the hallowed spot in which he worships and incidentally conceals his daughter. The bloodthirsty fanatic observes sententiously that Brahma has smiled and cuts short Gerald’s soliloquizing with a dagger thrust. Lakmé, with the help of a male slave, removes him to a hut concealed in the forest. While he is convalescing the pair sing duets and exchange vows of undying affection. But the military Briton, who has invaded the country at large, must needs now invade also this cosey abode of love. Frederick, a brother officer, discovers Gerald and informs him that duty calls (Britain always expects every man to do his duty, no matter what the consequences to him) and he must march with his regiment. Frederick has happened in just as Lakmé is gone for some sacred water in which she and Gerald were to pledge eternal love for each other, to each other. But, spurred on by Frederick and the memory that “England expects, etc.,” Gerald finds the call of the fife and drum more potent than the voice of love. Lakmé, psychologist as well as botanist, understands the struggle which now takes place in Gerald’s soul, and relieves him of his dilemma by crushing a poisonous flower (to be exact, the Datura stramonium) between her teeth, dying, it would seem, to the pious delight of her father, who “ecstatically” beholds her dwelling with Brahma.
The story, borrowed by Gondinet and Gille from the little romance “Le Mariage de Loti,” is worthless except to furnish motives for tropical scenery, Hindu dresses, and Oriental music. Three English ladies, Ellen, Rose, and Mrs. Bentson, figure in the play, but without dramatic purpose except to take part in some concerted music. They are, indeed, so insignificant in all other respects that when the opera was given by Miss Van Zandt and a French company in London for the first time in 1885 they were omitted, and the excision was commended by the critics, who knew that it had been made. The conversation of the women is all of the veriest stopgap character. The maidens, Rose and Ellen, are English ladies visiting in the East ; Mrs. Bentson is their chaperon. All that they have to say is highly unimportant, even when true. “What do you see, Frederick ?” “A garden.” “And you, Gerald ?” “Big, beautiful trees.” “Anybody about ?” “Don’t know.” “Look again.” “That’s not easy the fence shuts out the view within.” “Can’t you make a peephole through the bamboo?” “Girls, girls, be careful.” And so on and so on for quantity. But we must fill three acts, and ensemble makes its demands ; besides, we want pretty blondes of the English type to put in contrast with the dark-skinned Lakmé and her slave. At the first representation in New York by the American Opera Company, at the Academy of Music, on March 1, 1886, the three women were permitted to interfere with what there is of poetical spirit in the play, and their conversation, like that of the other principals, was uttered in the recitatives composed by Delibes to take the place of the spoken dialogue used at the Paris Opéra Comique, where spoken dialogue is traditional. Theodore Thomas conducted the Academy performance, at which the cast was as follows : Lakmé, Pauline L’Allemand ; Nilakantha, Alonzo E. Stoddard ; Gerald, William Candidus ; Frederick, William H. Lee ; Ellen, Charlotte Walker ; Rose, Helen Dudley Campbell ; Mrs. Bentson, May Fielding ; Mallika, Jessie Bartlett Davis ; Hadji, William H. Fessenden.
Few operas have had a more variegated American history than “Lakmé.” It was quite new when it was first heard in New York, but it had already given rise to considerable theatrical gossip, not to say scandal. The first representation took place at the Opéra Comique in April, 1883, with Miss Marie Van Zandt, an American girl, the daughter of a singer who had been actively successful in English opera in New York and London, as creator of the part of the heroine. The opera won a pretty triumph and so did the singer. At once there was talk of a New York performance. Mme. Etelka Gerster studied the titular rôle with M. Delibes and, as a member of Colonel Mapleson’s company at the Academy of Music, confidently expected to produce the work there in the season of 1883-1884, the first season of the rivalry between the Academy and the Metropolitan Opera House, which had just opened its doors ; but though she went so far as to offer to buy the American performing rights from Heugel, the publisher, nothing came of it. The reason was easily guessed by those who knew that there has been, or was pending, a quarrel between Colonel Mapleson and M. Heugel concerning the unauthorized use by the impresario of other scores owned by the publisher.
During the same season, however, Miss Emma Abbott carried a version (or rather a perversion) of the opera, for which the orchestral parts had been arranged from the pianoforte score, into the cities of the West, and brought down a deal of unmerited criticism on the innocent head of M. Delibes. In the season of 18841885 Colonel Mapleson came back to the Academy with vouchers of various sorts to back up a promise to give the opera. There was a human voucher in the person of Miss Emma Nevada, who had also enjoyed the instruction of the composer and who had trunkfuls and trunkfuls and trunkfuls of Oriental dresses, though Lakmé needs but few. There were gorgeous uniforms for the British soldiers, the real article, each scarlet coat and every top boot having a piece of history attached, and models of the scenery which any doubting Thomas of a newspaper reporter might inspect if he felt so disposed. When the redoubtable colonel came it was to be only a matter of a week or so before the opera would be put on the stage in the finest of styles ; it was still a matter of a week or so when the Academy season came to an end. When Delibes’s exquisite and exotic music reached a hearing in the American metropolis, it was sung to English words, and the most emphatic success achieved in performance was the acrobatic one of Mme. L’Allemand as she rolled down some uncalled-for pagoda steps in the death scene.
Mme. Adelina Patti was the second Lakmé heard in New York. After the fifth season of German opera at the Metropolitan Opera House had come to an end in the spring of 1890, Messrs. Abbey and Grau took the theatre for a short season of Italian opera by a troupe headed by Mme. Patti. In that season “Lakmé” was sung once – on April 2, 1890. Now came an opportunity for the original representative of the heroine. Abbey and Grau resumed the management of the theatre in 1891, and in their company was Miss Van Zandt, for whom the opera was “revived” on February 22. Mr. Abbey had great expectations, but they were disappointed. For the public there was metal more attractive than Miss Van Zandt and the Hindu opera in other members of the company and other operas. It was the year of Emma Eames’s coming and also of Jean de Reszke’s (they sang together in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”) and “Cavalleria rusticana” was new. Then Delibes’s opera hibernated in New York for fifteen years, after which the presence in the Metropolitan company of Mme. Marcella Sembrich led to another “revival.” (Operas which are unperformed for a term of two or three years after having been once included in the repertory are “revived” in New York.) It was sung three times in the season of 1906-1907. It also afforded one of Mr. Hammer-stein’s many surprises at the Manhattan Opera House. Five days before the close of his last season, on March 21, 1910, it was precipitated on the stage (“pitchforked” is the popular and professional term) to give Mme. Tetrazzini a chance to sing the bell song. Altogether I know of no more singular history than that of “Lakmé” in New York.
Lakmé is a child of the theatrical boards, who inherited traits from several predecessors, the strongest being those deriving from Aida and Selika. Like the former, she loves a man whom her father believes to be the arch enemy of his native land, and, like her, she is the means of betraying him into the hands of the avenger. Like the heroine of Meyerbeer’s posthumous opera, she has a fatal acquaintance with tropical botany and uses her knowledge to her own destruction. Her scientific attainments are on about the same plane as her amiability, her abnormal sense of filial duty, and her musical accomplishments. She loves a man whom her father wishes her to lure to his death by her singing, and she sings entrancingly enough to bring about the meeting between her lover’s back and her father’s knife. That she does not warble herself into the position of particeps criminis in a murder she owes only to the bungling of the old man. Having done this, however, she turns physician and nurse and brings the wounded man back to health, thus sacrificing her love to the duty which her lover thinks he owes to the invaders of her country and oppressors of her people. After this she makes the fatal application of her botanical knowledge. Such things come about when one goes to India for an operatic heroine.
The feature of the libretto which Delibes has used to the best purpose is its local color. His music is saturated with the languorous spirit of the East. Half a dozen of the melodies are lovely inventions, of marked originality in both matter and treatment, and the first half hour of the opera is apt to take one’s fancy completely captive. The drawback lies in the oppressive weariness which succeeds the first trance, and is brought on by the monotonous character of the music. After an hour of “Lakmé” one yearns for a few crashing chords of C major as a person enduring suffocation longs for a gush of fresh air. The music first grows monotonous, then wearies. Delibes’s lyrical moments show the most numerous indications of beauty; dramatic life and energy are absent from the score. In the second act he moves his listeners only once with the attempted repetition of the bell song after Lakmé has recognized her lover. The odor of the poppy invites to drowsy enjoyment in the beginning, and the first act is far and away the most gratifying in the opera, musically as well as scenically. It would be so if it contained only Lakmé’s song “Pourquoi dans les grands bois, ” the exquisite barcarole a veritable treasure trove for the composer, who used its melody dramatically throughout the work and Gerald’s air, “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges.” Real depth will be looked for in vain in this opera ; superficial loveliness is apparent on at least half its pages.