French Orientalist Opera Revived In Stylish Recording

Javanese dancers at L’Exposition Universelle in 1889 fed the late 19th-century Parisian arts craze for all things Oriental. (Engraving, Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris)

Félicien César David: Lalla Roukh, opera in two acts, libretto by Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas. Marianne Fiset, soprano, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, tenor, Nathalie Paulin, soprano, Bernard Deletré, bass-baritone, David Newman, baritone, Andrew Adelsberger, bass-baritone, Opera Lafayette, Ryan Brown, conductor and artistic director, with the participation of Kalanidhi Dance, Anuradha Nehru, artistic director and choreographer. Naxos 8.660338-39, © 2013, TT 107 minutes, $19.99.

Theatrical illustration of Félicien David and his exotic fixations. (BNF)

Félicien David (1810-76) was a younger contemporary of Hector Berlioz, which places him among the first generation of French Romantic composers. His music was a bit more of a continuation of Baroque traditions than Berlioz’s, however. Like many of his works, Lalla Roukh is an extension of the French 17th and 18th centuries’ attraction to exoticism and the Orient, then understood to include Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and the Indian sub-continent as well as China and Japan.

This interest continued throughout the 19th century – think Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863) and Leo Delibes’ Lakmé (1883). Artists and musicians from diverse cultures appeared in pavilions at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, the one for which the Eiffel Tower was built. Julien Tiersot’s book Musiques pittoresques; Promenades musicales à l’Exposition Universelle de 1889, which is about those musical offerings, included comments by Camille Saint-Saëns. It was also at these events that Claude Debussy first encountered Javanese gamelan and Japanese lacquers and prints among other things Oriental.

The most famous 18th-century work embodying the fascination with the Orient was Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, an opera-ballet that is a succession of evocative scenes, including one representing Native Americans, without an overall story line. Rameau had, of course, never visited any of those lands. But David, a native of Cadenet in the south of France near Aix-en-Provence, had done so in 1833-35. Soon after completing his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, he went to Turkey and Egypt via Smyrna and the Holy Land as the official composer of a group of Saint-Simonian missionaries, believers in establishing utopian socialist communities, ones that placed a greater emphasis than many on the arts.

His first major success was Le Désert, an ode-symphonique for speaker, tenor and male chorus with text by official group poet Auguste Colin. The work depicts events in the lives of members of a nomadic caravan in the Sahara, including a wind and sandstorm, an oasis encampment, a spectacular sunrise, and the first-ever portrayal in Western music of a muezzin’s call to prayer (available on CD: Capriccio 5017). Berlioz was in the audience at its 1844 premiere and declared afterward: “A great composer has appeared. His name is Félicien David and his masterpiece is called Le Désert.”

‘Lalla-Roukh’ premiere card (Célestin Nanteuil-Wiki Commons)

Much of David’s music in all genres fits into this tradition, in particular the 1845 set of 18 piano pieces titled Les Brises d’Orient (six volumes) and a seventh book, Les Minarets (1847), that were once available on CD (Marco Polo 8.223376). Those pieces also reflect what David heard and learned during this trip, many having been composed on location.

In the opera Lalla Roukh, however, the exoticism is more discreet, suggested by the instrumentation, the percussion, and the rhythms. There is none of the trite or gimmicky material often found in the 18th century works influenced by the Orient. It is in the traditional Western comic-opera style and flows steadily from one melodious aria, duet, quartet, or choral ensemble with lovely harmonies to another. The Orientalism is represented in the story, settings and sets, costumes, and numerous dances, which are another extension of the 18th-century opera-ballet tradition that sets French opera apart from Italian, German, and English.

Lalla Roukh, which turns on the convention of a character in disguise, is based on an 1817 literary work of the same title, in prose and verse, by Irish writer Thomas Moore. While imagined and romanticized, the tale may have some basis in fact, at least in the sense that arranged marriages among distant royal families were common. Robert Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1843) is based on one of these verse tales. Lalla Roukh had 100 performances at the Opéra-Comique in the year following its May 12, 1862, premiere, and the print run of 1,000 of the piano-vocal score sold out the morning it was released; it was revived several times later, but disappeared from the repertoire with its century. The performances that preceded this world premiere recording of the same cast and personnel represented its first modern revival anywhere.

Act II set design by Jean-Pierre Moynet for David’s ‘Lalla Roukh’ (premiere production, Opéra-Comique, Paris, May 1862)

The story tells of an Indian princess (Lalla Roukh) who is traveling to Bucharia (Bukhara, in modern Uzbekistan) to marry a prince named Noureddin. Wanting the princess to marry him because she loves him for who he is rather than for what he has, the prince disguises himself as a minstrel and travels in the opposite direction to meet the caravan, join it, and sing tales to her to woo her. Ultimately he reveals his identity upon their arrival at the destination, after having successfully enthralled her. The libretto removes all traces of religion and turns the story into something of a fairy tale.

The music is joyful, upbeat and, occasionally something of a romp. David has the French gift for delightful and elegant melodies; it is amazing that no aria or duet from the work has become a recital chestnut. Noureddin’s Act II aria, with harp accompaniment, “O! ma maîtresse” seems a particularly likely candidate, as do several of Lalla Roukh’s. The concluding march and finale, “Gloire, honneur,” brings Berlioz to mind. On this disc, the performance is outstanding, capturing and holding the listener’s attention. Most of the principals are native French speakers, and their diction is impeccable; that of the sixteen-member chorus (four per voice part) is equally excellent. The superb playing of the 45-member orchestra supports and balances the singers perfectly. (Click on the video to learn more from the Opera Lafayette creative team talking about preparing the revival.)

The note by Eastman School of Music professor Ralph P. Locke in the accompanying booklet is excellent. Photos in color on the front (Fiset) and back covers (a group of dancers) show the authentic costumes. Small black and white photos inside of scenes involving a tent and the principals in costume, adjacent to their bios, give a further glimpse of the production. Black and white photos of the Opera Lafayette orchestral ensemble and conductor-artistic director Ryan Brown accompany their bios as well. The libretto is not included in the booklet but is available for free with English translation online. The format of the track listing on page 3 makes it appear that some scenes have been omitted, but this is not the case.

The exotic features that drew the original audiences to this music no longer attract us thanks to cinema and television and increased ability to travel to the lands depicted, but the music endures because of its beauty, its quality, and the authenticity of its evocations that please the ears. From the photos in the booklet, this production must have pleased the eyes of its audiences as well. Brown is to be commended for bringing this captivating work so brilliantly back to life and into our consciousness.

Editor’s Note: For another CVNA article on Opera Lafayette, click here.