( Originally Published 1907 )
LAKME was one of Patti's most successful roles, and very few other singers have ventured to attempt it. But Madame Melba includes it in her repertoire, and a great treat is in store for New Yorkers when the managerial difficulties in the way of its production are sufficiently overcome for her to present it.
"Lakme is composed by Delibes. This name at once recalls that exquisite "pizzicato" from the ballet "Sylvia," a musical fragment that has floated around the world and stuck to the programs of every land. The same delicate fancy and witchery that characterize the ballet are also prominent in the opera. His style is perhaps the furthest removed from Wagner of any modern composer. " Lakme " has no crescendo worth mentioning, and the themes are, for the most part, left to take care of themselves ; but every phrase is fascinating, and there is never a tedious passage.
The prelude opens in the minor key with a group of octaves erect and solemn as pine trees. The next phrase starts up like a blue flame darting from obscurity—a fantastic measure with wild harmonies that plainly suggest India as Lakme's home. A pathetic wail from the flute offsets this elfish interlude; the gloom of the minor still hangs over all, and the persistent tremolo of the violins becomes oppressive as the perfume of magnolias. It is like a forest at midnight. Suddenly the gloom and stillness are dispersed by the love-theme of the opera, which is in the major key, and consequently has a purifying effect. Major and minor are the oxygen and nitrogen of the musical atmosphere.
A peculiar, rhythmical beating of the triangle accompanies the rising of the cur-tain, which reveals a luxuriant garden enclosed by a bamboo fence. At the back is a little river, and a modest dwelling stands on the bank ; but a pretentious idol at one side characterizes the place as a sanctuary. Day is breaking, and as the light increases those soft, metallic tones of the triangle penetrate the air like sunbeams. Nilikanthe, a Brahmin priest and owner of the dwelling, comes forward with two slaves, who open the bamboo gates, admitting a group of Hindu devotees, who prostrate themselves before the idol. Beneath the radiance of those unceasing triangle tones arises a languid prayer, soft as the gray morning mist, after which Nilikanthe ad-dresses the worshipers. He refers to their recent English conquerors, who have " displaced our gods and devastated our temples." His tones mount higher and ring out with religious ecstasy until he causes a sudden hush. The music of invisible harps fills the air, and as the Hindus again kneel a woman's voice, like a clarion call, renders an incantation that is rare and wondrous. It sounds like the song of an angel, but it is only Lakme, the Brahmin's daughter. She comes forward and mingles her prayer with those of the people. Weird and strange, like the tones of a wild bird, her voice soars above the chorus, filling the air with reckless trills and soft staccatos. The worshipers arise and go out, leaving Lakme and her father alone. She is a "child of the gods," and her life is dedicated to Brahma. Nilikanthe declares it is her pure influence that protects their sacred abode from the enemy. He leaves her for a time in charge of Mallika, a trusty slave.
When he is gone the music assumes a lighter mood, while mistress and maid look about for diversion. After removing her jewels and placing them upon a stone table, Lakme proposes a row on the river. The music of this scene is fraught with a tropical heat and midday languor—dreamy, drowsy violin tremolos that suggest the drone of bees. The two maidens render a duet whose words
"Ah, we'll glide, With the tide-"
are set to music that seems to sing itself. t is a fountain of melody with flowing rhythm and rippling runs, staccatos like drops of water, and trills that are light as bubbles. The singers step into the boat, and we hear their song far down the stream, soft as a shadow and lovely as a dream.
After a moment's silence a new element comes forward—a party of English sight-seers. Their appearance in grand opera seems to us as much an invasion as their presence in India does to the Hindu. After the costume of Lakme, which is all spangles and bangles and gauze and fringe, we are astonished to see the modern English waist-coats, fashionable bonnets, and long-trained skirts. But it is all compatible with facts and history. Gerald is an officer in the army; Ellen, his fiancée, is a daughter of the governor; the other couple are their friends, and Mrs. Benson is the chaperone.
To enter this enclosure, the party have had to force an opening in the bamboo. t is evident trespassing, but they are too unconcerned to care. Their first rollicking ensemble is an interesting evidence of the composer's ability to change from the Hindu to the English type. Instead of weird, uncivilized cadenzas, these are plain, Christianlike harmonies, such as we have been brought up to and can anticipate. Indeed, this song recalls Arthur Sullivan in his best mood.
After inspecting the idol and various points of interest, the party discover Lakme's jewels. Ellen admires their workmanship, and Gerald proposes to sketch them ; but Mrs. Benson urges the party away. They all go excepting Gerald, who insists on copying the jewels. He prepares his sketching materials and is apparently in haste; but true to the precepts of grand opera, he first sings to us a long and beautiful aria about "taking the design of a jewel."
By the time he has sustained the last high tone through five measures, Lakme and Mallika have finished their row upon the river. Gerald conceals himself behind a shrub as they enter. The undulating melody of their boat-song is rendered by the orchestra, first softly, then with increasing strength, until it ends with a sforzando chord as the boat touches shore.
Lakme brings forward an armful of flowers as an offering to the idol, and she sings a tender little song whose pathetic melody belies the text, which constantly asserts, " I am happy." The accompaniment is a simple violin arpeggio, swaying back and forth upon the melody like a butterfly on a flower. Between the verses it flutters up in a fanciful cadenza, but soon returns, and, alighting on the melody, it continues to sway as before.
Great is Lakme's indignation on perceiving Gerald, the intruder. As she goes toward him, her every step is emphasized by a resolute chord in the orchestra.
" Leave at once ! " she commands. "This ground is sacred, and I am a child of the gods! "
But Gerald has fallen hopelessly in love with the pretty priestess, and he loses no time in telling her. No one has ever dared thus to address Lakme, and she is incensed at his boldness. She warns him that death will be the penalty of his rash trespassing unless he goes at once. But Gerald only repeats his sweeping song of infatuation.
At last, moved to admiration by his courage, Lakme ventures to ask by what god is he inspired. Like ripples of sunlight are the next measures, wherein he tells her that the God of Love makes him fearless.
Interested in this new deity, the Hindu maiden repeats after him the sparkling words and music. She sings timidly and a tone too low, but Gerald leads his ready pupil into the right key, and they sing together with full voice this most fascinating melody. The final rapturous tone has scarcely subsided when Lakme hears her father approach.
Complying with her entreaties, Gerald departs just in time for Nilikanthe to perceive the broken fence. He vows vengeance upon the profane foe who has dared to enter here. His followers second the cry, while Lakme stands aside in fear and trembling.
Tambourines and fifes predominate in the next orchestral prelude. t is a miniature marche militaire, and unmistakably English. The second act discloses a public square filled with Indian shops and bazars. It is the occasion of a great festival at the pagoda. Merchants and promenaders occupy the stage, and their opening chorus is all bickering and bargaining. The music is very ingenious. A free use of harmonic discords, dazzling scales that seem to clash with their bass, and chromatics that run into each other gives an effect of Oriental extravagance—gay colors upon crumbling walls, jewels over rags.
The chorus continues until a bell announces the beginning of the festival and time for the venders to disperse. They slowly depart and give place to the ballet, without which Delibes would hardly be himself.
It is interesting to note the specialties that different composers unconsciously assume. Liszt seemed to revel in rhapsodies; while the alliteration, "Schubert's Songs," comes uppermost in spite of our knowledge that he wrote some eleven hundred other compositions. Bach invented more fugues than any one else ; while Handel made his most lasting impression with oratorios. Symphonies and sonatas were the life-work of Beethoven ; while Chopin had a particular fancy for nocturnes. And Mendelssohn ! With all deference to his greater works, it must be conceded that " Songs Without Words " are inseparably linked with his name. Verdi with his tremendous range of operas has had little time for anything else. The list could be extended to almost any length ; but we will only add that Czerny is known for his scale exercises and Kullak for his octaves; while Weber, in the language of a recent critic, " is famous because he invited all the world to waltz ! "
But to return to Delibes and his ballets.
The present one is divided into several movements—the first being slow but of throbbing rhythm, while in the second one the melody whirls and spins around like a top. t is constantly whipped up by the conductor's baton, and the dizzy pace continues until this merry melody bumps against a substantial chord.
After the ballet Lakme and her father come forward. They are disguised as pilgrim mendicants, the better to enable Nilikanthe to seek out his foe. t must be understood that this Hindu thirst for vengeance is a matter of religious belief, and the music plainly impresses this fact. A weird theme that was prominent in the overture recurs as Nilikanthe explains that the wrath of heaven must be appeased with the blood of a victim. He has cleverly surmised that Lakme was the attraction inducing the stranger to trespass on sacred ground. Confident that every one will attend this great festival, the Brahmin has brought his daughter as a decoy. She plays the rôle of a street ballad-singer, and is at the merciless command of her father. He bids her look gay and sing with full voice so as to attract a crowd. The orchestra gives her the key-note, and then, like a necromancer performing wonders with a coin, she executes a cadenza that bewilders and dazzles the senses. Her tones soar away like carrier-birds, and they bring the people from far and near to hear the wondrous singing. When a crowd has collected, Nilikanthe announces that she will sing to them the " Legend of the Pariah's Daughter." Lakme sings as easily as she talks. The first phrase is a simple little narrative about a maiden wandering at eve in the forest, fearless of beast and sprite, for she carries in her hand a little bell that wards off evil with its merry tinkling. Then follows one of the most difficult staccato fantasias in existence, for the voice imitates the tinkle of that silver bell. The tones fall fast as rain-drops in a shower, round as beads and clear as crystal. The composer shows no respect or reverence for high notes. Upper B is given a " shake " and any amount of staccato raps, while even high E, that slumbering " spirit of the summit," is also aroused to action. In fact, this aria is one of the few that can not be poorly rendered. To do it at all argues doing it well. Its difficulties protect it like a barricade from the attack of mediocre singers. The second verse relates how the maiden meets a stranger, who is saved from the surrounding wolves by the tinkle of her magic bell. This stranger was "great Vishnu, Brahma's son ; " and since then ---
"In that dark wood
Soft and clear as a wood-nymph laughing those marvelous staccatos again peal forth.
During his daughter's performance Nilikanthe has been scanning the faces around him, but none reveals any emotion other than the pleasure of listening. Furious that his plan has not succeeded, he bids Lakme to sing it again—" Louder ! " But she has suddenly perceived Gerald approaching; and, knowing that if he recognizes her he will betray himself, she does not wish to sing. She pleads and entreats, but her father is obdurate. So she begins with pouting lips and trembling voice. "Sing out! " admonishes Nilikanthe. As Gerald draws nearer, Lakme becomes more and more disturbed. The pretty staccatos are all out of place, like blossoms falling to pieces. They are flat where they should be sharp, and minor instead of major; but her tones, like perfect petals, are none the less lovely because detached. Once, twice, three times she recommences, always in a higher key. Suddenly she utters a musical scream as Gerald comes up to her, and Nilikanthe exclaims: "'Tis he! "
In the mean time, Gerald hears the fifes and tambourines of his regiment and goes to answer the roll-call.
Nilikanthe summons his Hindu followers and informs them that he has discovered the foe. This solo with chorus of the conspirators is minor, mysterioso, and agitato; it is the most interesting bass solo of the opera. The conspirators go off, leaving Lakme alarmed and disconsolate. Like a faithful hound, Hadji, the slave, draws near to her and whispers that he has seen her tears and heard her sighs : " If you have a friend to save, confide in me." His words are parlando, but the orchestra illumines them with music clear as a calcium light. Lakme grasps his hand in gratitude, but motions him aside as she perceives Gerald thoughtfully returning.
The hero has left his comrades at the first opportunity and retraced his steps to the place he left Lakme. His joy on finding her is portrayed in a musical greeting of such unbounded rapture that one key will hardly hold it. The ensuing love-duet deserves to rank with the best. But Lakme is more sad than glad, for she knows of impending danger. She urges him to flee, and tells him of " a little cabin hidden in the forest, quite near by," where he can hide secure from his enemies. This Cabin Song is an idyllic refrain, with gentle harmonies that picture more than the words. She urges him to follow her; but, in spite of his infatuation, Gerald realizes his duty as a soldier. He dare not go.
Like dust before a tempest is the succeeding instrumental passage announcing the approach of the great procession. The notes, like atoms, are carried forward faster and higher, until they come so thick that you can not distinguish them. This cloud of music melts away before the mighty chant of the Brahmins as they march to the pagoda. Their weird incantation fills the air like a trumpet-blast. The greater part of this processional music greets our ears familiarly, because it was given in the overture. Upon this somber background of Hindu harmonies the composer delights in casting gleams of Sullivanesque music in the form of passing remarks from the English onlookers. The contrast is startling as magic-lantern pictures thrown upon the pyramids.
As the procession marches on, we see Nilikanthe point out Gerald to the other conspirators. They cautiously surround him, and at the bidden moment he is stabbed by Nilikanthe, who then disappears in the crowd. On hearing the victim 's cry, Lakme rushes forward. The stage is darkened, for it is evening, and the lights of the pro-cession are gone. The Hindu maiden finds Gerald but slightly wounded. She calls Hadji, the slave, and then, without further explanation on her part, the instruments whisper to us her intention. We hear the soothing harmonies of that lovely song about " a little cabin hidden in the forest quite near by."
The second entr'acte is performed after the rising of the curtain. We see an Indian forest, dense of foliage and brilliant with flowers. At one side is a hut, half concealed by the shrubbery, and near it are Lakme and Gerald, the latter reclining upon a bank, while she watches over him as he slumbers. No sound or movement mars the effect of a perfect picture, and beneath it all, like gold letters spelling out the subject, come the tones of that sweet melody of the Cabin Song. The conductor at his desk reminds us of an artist at his easel who, with a magic brush, traces in tone-colors this beautiful inscription.
After the entr'acte Lakme softly sings a slumber-song, simple as a child's prayer and as beautiful. There are only two phrases in it, but they come and go like wandering thoughts. When Gerald awakes he recalls how he was brought here, while Lakme relates how with wild herbs and the juice of flowers he has been restored. Their rapturous conversation is interrupted by a chorus from without, the voices of young men and maidens on their way to a fountain in the forest from whence, it is said, if two lovers drink they will always be united. Lakme solemnly explains this beautiful be-lief and at once proposes to bring a cup of the water. " Wait for me," she admonishes as she runs out, and we hear her voice mingle with the far-away chorus of the other lovers.
During her absence a comrade of Gerald's discovers his retreat. The newcomer announces that their regiment has orders to move on, and that if Gerald does not join them he will be dishonored. This visit passes over like a modern railroad through an Arcadian temple. Poor Lakme soon discovers the devastation. With charming faith she extends her cup of water to Gerald, but at this moment he hears the fifes and drums of his regiment. Lakme still offers the cup, " Drink and vow to be mine ! " But Gerald does not heed her words, for he is distracted with thoughts of duty and honor. She also hears this English music.
" His love is faltering ! " she piteously cries; and then with a decision as impulsive as her nature she plucks a flower of the deadly Datura and eats it without being observed by Gerald.
She turns to him tenderly and sings of their love,—a melody so gentle and pathetic that he can no longer resist. He picks up the fallen goblet, and touching it to his lips vows to love forever. They sing together a song of exaltation.
Suddenly Nilikanthe breaks in upon them. He brings his followers and would kill Gerald at once, did not Lakme rush between them : " If a victim to the gods must be offered, let them claim one in me ! " In tones of ecstasy she repeats the final phrase of her love-song; but her voice soon fails, and with a sudden gasp she falls at the Brahmin's feet—dead.
Like hot flames reaching up at him from the orchestra come the tones of his terrible vow-theme. The victim has been offered, but instead of glory, only ashes fall upon him.