|Marianne Fiset as Lalla-Roukh|
Félicien David is a name that, in more than 20 years of listening to classical music, I had never knowingly heard before about a month ago. But in the mid-19th century David was famous for his works on exotic subjects: after a trip to Egypt he wrote 22 Melodies orientales (1836) for piano and the "symphonic ode" Le Désert (1844); later he wrote operas set during a slave revolt in Brazil and during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Herculaneum.
At the end of the 19th century, though, the eclipse of David and his operas was sudden and almost complete. Lalla-Roukh dropped out of the repertory, and for over a hundred years only a few arias and duets from the work were occasionally recorded or performed in concert.
But in January 2013 Opera Lafayette, under conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown, staged in Washington D.C. and New York City what were apparently the first performances of the opera since 1898. Brown's troupe was able to sandwich recording sessions in between those two performances, and in March of this year the world premiere recording of Lalla-Roukh was released on Naxos Records.
Listening to the opera today, it's difficult to understand why a work so full of melody was so thoroughly forgotten. Perhaps it's because the opera is more atmospheric than dramatic. The 1890s saw the rise of the lurid plots of verismo and the creation of Puccini's first great tragedies. The delicacy and charm of Lalla Roukh—an opera which ends with two pairs of lovers united, and in which no one is murdered, commits suicide, goes mad, or is left in despair—must have become unfashionable.
As with many operas based on literary sources, substantial changes were made in translating Moore's story to the stage. David's librettists, Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, jettisoned everything in the book but the central love story: while travelling from Dehli to meet for the first time the King of Samarkand, to whom her marriage has been arranged, the princess Lalla-Roukh encounters a handsome young troubadour and falls in love with him. In a departure from Moore's original, in which the princess resigns herself to going through with the arranged marriage, in Carré and Lucas's version she vows to refuse the King and find her way back to the troubadour. Little does she suspect that the troubadour and the King are one and the same.
In addition to changing some of the details of the story, Carré and Lucas also changed the names of many of the characters: the troubadour Feramorz became Noureddin; Lalla Rookh's chamberlain Fadladeen became the King's emissary Baskir; and three comic servants, Bakbara, Kaboul, and Lalla-Roukh's lady-in-waiting Mirza, were added. But the changes do no harm to Moore's story, and instead compress and intensify the action.
|L to R: Natalie Paulin, Marianne Fiset, and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro|
Staging Lalla-Roukh raises questions of cultural appropriation on many levels, but to their credit Brown and Deletré neither tried to recreate the style of 19th-century French Orientalism, nor treated David's work ironically or as camp. Taking the first approach would do violence to 21st-century sensitivities, while the second would do violence to the work. Instead, they tried to bring to the opera a modern, cross-cultural sensibility. To stage the dances of the bayadères, Brown brought in classically-trained Indian-American choreographer Anuradha Nehru and her company Kalanidhi Dance; the costumes were commissioned from Indian fashion designer Poonam Bhagat.
|Chitra Kalyandurg of Kalanidhi Dance|
The strange journey of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh doesn't end here, though...
Next time: The 1958 Bollywood movie Lala Rookh.