Small picture of Donizetti



The rara avis: Lalla Roukh

 Charles Jernigan

Donizetti Society Newsletter 119, June 2013, pp. 27-30.

 Photographs copyright Louis Forget, kindly provided by Opera Lafayette

It was staged on January 26 & 31, 2013. The article is based on the January 31 performance.


The last of the operas we had come to New York to see was Félicien David's Lalla Roukh, performed at the Frederick Rose Theater on Columbus Circle by the Washington, D.C., company, Opera Lafayette.  This enterprising young company has been performing rare examples of French baroque opera, mostly opera comiques (with spoken dialogue) for the last several years, and this was its first excursion into the vast and little known repertory of nineteenth century opera comique.  There had been one performance of Lalla Roukh in Washington a few days earlier and the excellent cast recorded it for Naxos, but other than that, there had been no performance of this once wildly popular opera for at least 113 years, although some recorded excerpts from the early days of gramophone recording exist.  No one alive now had ever heard it before the Opera Lafayette performances as far as I know.


© Louis Forget


       Bernard Deletré as Baskir 

               ( in rehearsal)

      © Louis Forget


Marianne Fiset as Lalla Roukh              

(in rehearsal)                          


If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is the name of a work by the Irish poet and writer Thomas Moore, a work once so popular that there was actually a middle-aged woman at the opera performance whose name was Lalla Roukh.  She said it had been a tradition in her family to name a female child after the Moore heroine for many, many years.  In the Moore tale, Lalla Roukh is a Moghul (Moslem) Indian princess who has been betrothed to the King of Burkhara, whom she has never seen.  On the long journey from Delhi to Samarkand in Bukhara (in today's Uzbekistan) the Princess encounters a minstrel who keeps serenading her with narrative songs.  Lalla Roukh of course falls in love with the penniless minstrel, who of course turns out to be the King in disguise--because he wanted to test his betrothed and make her love him for himself and not for his position.  In Moore's work, the story of Lalla Roukh is a frame tale in prose; the four narrative poems that the minstrel sings to her are separate stories which make up most of the work.  David's librettists, Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, took the frame tale as the basis for their story and discarded the rest.

Félicien David is an interesting composer (1810-76).  Early in his life he was an ardent participant in the Saint Simonian movement, a group of utopian socialists who believed in world peace fostered by greater communication and trade, and who preached the coming of a female messiah.  Naturally, they believed in rights for women that were far ahead of their time.  They also believed that music held a central place in promoting harmony, understanding and peace, and musicians were much honored by them.  One of their projects was to promote building a canal at the isthmus of Suez because they felt that the increased trade would produce mutual understanding.  Again, they were decades ahead of their time.  David wrote hymns for the group and choral pieces, until they were eventually banned by the French government, which did not like their socialist tendencies.  

David traveled with other adherents of the cause to Turkey and Egypt on a long trip and was much influenced by what he heard there.  Because of his trip and his interest in the region David became one of the first 'orientalist' composers and led the movement of music and opera in particular that used 'oriental' subjects.  "Oriental" in those days meant everything from north Africa across what we call the Middle East through India to China and even Japan.  From the time of Lalla Roukh (1862) to at least Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904/Japan) and Turandot (1926/China) opera composers exploited the "orient" and satisfied a burgeoning western interest in exotic lands.  Some of the more famous works that used these locales and offered vaguely "oriental" sounding music were The Pearl Fishers (Bizet, 1863/Sri Lanka), Lakmé (Delibes, 1883/India), La reine de Saba (Gounod, 1862/ancient Ethiopia and Yemen) and even Aida (1871/Egypt).

David first became well known to the general public with his programmatic symphonic ode Le désert (1844), a sort of secular oratorio with spoken narration which depicted several aspects of a camel caravan moving across the Egyptian desert including a sand storm, a stop at an oasis and the muezzin's call to prayer in the morning.  It is almost the only piece of David's music that I had ever heard, way back in 1969, and I have been fascinated by him ever since, but unable to hear almost anything by him!  In Le désert, David used what he called "airs arabes," native melodies he transcribed while in Egypt.  In his career David used many exotic locales, and not only in the "orient": there was Brazil for his opera La perle du Brésil and the Caribbean for an oratorio about Columbus.  He also attempted a big grand opera called Herculaneum, which capitalized on the great archaeological discovery of that buried ancient city.  And there was much chamber music, some of which has been recorded.  

Lalla Roukh balances the love plot with a comic set of characters, the ambassador assigned to bring the princess to Samarkand, Baskir (a bass) and the Princess' lady-in-waiting Mirza.  The music is luscious and tuneful and cleverly orchestrated.  The "oriental" atmosphere is achieved with the use of certain instruments and harmonies and does not use authentic Indian or Persian melodies.  It is hard to understand why some of the arias and duets have not survived in the repertories of modern singers and why this opera faded so quickly and completely from the scene after 1900 when it had been heard hundreds of times in a dozen different languages and countries in the last 40 years of the nineteenth century.  The great satirist and cartoonist Daumier drew a cartoon showing the bourgeois flocking to the opera.  Daumier probably felt that David had sold out his socialist principals to appeal to the moneyed bourgeois, but flock they did, and for a long time.

No doubt Lalla Roukh was very influential as practically the first of the "oriental" operas.  You can hear bits and pieces of it in Berlioz' Les Troyens (Berlioz was full of praise for the work), in both The Pearl Fishers and Carmen, and in other works.  If David's work has survived at all, it is through the works of other, better known composers.  

Opera Lafayette's production did the work proud.  Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, took western artists to task (including Verdi) for offering a false picture of a world they did not understand and had no real wish to (the world of the 'Other'), but Opera Lafayette took pains to bring in representatives of and artists from India to complement the western artists.  The Ambassador of India headed the list of individuals that the company thanked and Her Excellency was there at the performance we saw.  More important, they brought a wonderful American/Indian dance troupe called Kalanidhi Dance to perform dances in the Kuchipudi style of southern India.  The group danced a separate little ballet to Indian music before the opera started, and performed the several ballet episodes within the opera itself.  These beautifully clad young women added a touch of the authentic East to the western opera comique, and their choreographer, Anuradha Nehru, created lovely dances which respected the French music of David, and the French text.

 © Louis Forget


Chitra Kalyandurg from Kalanidhi Dance   

(in rehearsal)                      

The opera worked as the Saint Simonist David may have wanted it to: as a window on that Other that promotes understanding and cooperation between cultures.  After all, this was a Persian style tale with an Indian heroine by an Irish poet, set to music by a French composer using a French text, with multi-national singers, an American dance troupe composed of women of Indian heritage, an Indian costume designer who used Uzbek textiles and colors, offered by an American company performing in French to an international audience in a polyglot city.  It was an undertaking worthy of the world we live in.

One of the best things about the production was that everyone spoke excellent French.  The copious dialogue was cut, but enough was kept to reveal the idiomatic French.  The music offers each principal an aria in each act.  Both of Lalla Roukh's are astonishingly varied and good--"Sous le feuillage sombre" and "O nuit d'amour."  Why haven't they been recorded?  Noureddin, the minstrel-king, sings a romance in typical couplet form in Act I ("Ma maitresse a quitté la tente") to entertain the Princess, and in Act II he sings a barcarolle (O, ma maitresse") off stage, an utterly charming piece which our production enlivened with a solo dance.  There are duets in both acts, and one of them, a comic duet between Baskir and Noureddin in which the former laughs about how he will dupe the King not knowing that he is confessing to the King in disguise, might remind us of the smuggler's quintet in Carmen(1875), but would have reminded Carmen's early listeners of Lalla RoukhThe love duet in Act II ends with a section that reminds Ralph Locke, a musicologist who has written about David, of the final slow cabaletta in Lucia di Lammermoor At any rate, Donizetti can be heard from time to time too.

Marianne Fiset was a powerful heroine, especially in her beautiful aria "O nuit d'amour" near the beginning of Act II.  Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, a Chilean who was born and grew up in Geneva, was a mellifluous Noureddin, the King in disguise, while the excellent Nathalie Paulin was a funny and agile Mirza.  Perhaps best of all was Bernard Deletré in the comic role of Baskir.  Mr. Deletré also directed the proceedings and cut the spoken text. There were also two comic servants to Baskir named Bakbara and Kaboul (David Newman and Andrew Adelsberger).   These two gentlemen played a very funny drunk scene, most typical of French opera comique if not of Moslem culture.



Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as Nourredin

(in rehearsal)


There was minimal scenery (a couple of tents) and the chorus was dressed in nineteenth century black, and sang from stage boxes for the most part, but gorgeous costumes, using the bright colors of India and Uzbekistan, by Indian fashion designer Poonam Bhagat made up for any lack of sets.  Opera Lafayette founder Ryan Brown conducted idiomatically.  This rara avis  really flew!

Hearing L'elisir d'amore at the Metropolitan a day before Lalla Roukh was like putting on an old, comfortable sweater.  Everything about it was familiar, but it fits so well that it is always welcome (Charles's review of that opera was included in the same Newsletter).  Hearing Lalla Roukh is like finding a new wine (albeit in an old bottle).  It is what some of us jaded, devotees of the lyric muse treasure most: finding something new and very good, forgotten on the dusty shelves of an old library, and understanding what our great, great grandparents found so charming over a century ago.  We hope against hope that these performances will inspire other innovative companies to take up a work so full of grace and beauty so that it will not be consigned to the shelf for another hundred years.


The complete recording will be released on Naxos in 2014. Naxos have recorded a number of David pieces including Le Désert, see here.  The Laborie and Ambroisie labels have recorded his chamber music.



Page initially published in  June 2013