Leo Delibes’ “Flower Duet”

People everywhere have been moved by the loveliness of flowers—a single rose, a wildflower, or an expansive botanic garden.  Yet many persons have felt that in the large scheme of things, flowers are fairly inconsequential, fleeting, because they don’t live so very long.   Meanwhile, there is music about flowers that has lasted over a century now, and may be more popular than ever.  So what is it about the “Flower Duet,” from Leo Delibes’ 1883 French opera Lakmé that still affects people today?

In an Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry class taught by Ellen Reiss entitled “Selves and Flowers,” Ms. Reiss pointed out that along with love and death, flowers have been one of the most popular subjects in poetry.  And she asked, “Why is this so?  Is it because [there’s been a feeling] that some question of the self is answered [through flowers]?”  She discussed works by such poets as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, Robert Burns, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to show how each used flowers to comment on some of the largest matters in a person’s life: how a daisy has delicacy and power; the relation of force and fadingness in a rose. Are these the very same opposites present in a big and deep way in the “Flower Duet”, and is that what makes it beautiful?  And it can also be asked: Is there something important that every man needs to learn about how to see women from this duet?

In the very fine recording we’ll be hearing, the wonderful soprano Joan Sutherland sings Lakmé, the title character, a Brahmin princess; Jane Berbié (Mezzo Soprano) is Mallika, her handmaid; and Richard Bonynge conducts the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra.

Premiering in 1883, the opera is set in India after the arrival of the British imperialists.  Lakmé’s father, an exalted Hindu priest, is enraged at the usurpation of his land, and warns his daughter who is worried about his safety, to stay out of sight of the English soldiers.  In Act 1, as many Hindus go to perform their rites in a sacred temple, Lakmé and Mallika remain behind in a garden near a river.  It is here where they sing this famous duet, telling of how flowers gladden their souls.

Before the duet, there is a recitative in which Lakmé says: “Come, Mallika/The bright flowing vines/Their shadows now are throwing/Along the sacred stream which flows calm and sombre.” And Mallika responds: “Oh! dear mistress, now/When smiling I behold thee/In this blest moment/No cares guiling/That thy heart oft closed.”  So while we have the sweetness very much associated with flowers–“flowing vines” and smiles, there are also things darker and sadder: “shadows”, worrisome “cares”, and “closed” hearts.  And the music to which these words are set has a sense of foreboding.  We’ll hear two aspects of the world that people often keep apart brought together.

After this suspenseful beginning, the music brightens, and as if with one breath, the two glorious voices we heard separately in the recitative, now join with a kind of resplendent modesty singing about a “dome of white jasmine” and “roses entwined together.”

This duet brings up a crucial question every man needs to answer: how do we see the relation of power and delicacy in a woman?  For sure, we men have been strongly stirred by the comeliness of women, their faces and their bodies.

But when it has come to the subtlety of a woman’s thoughts, men have often been uncomfortable, and at our worst, have wanted to see women as weak and silly.  Meanwhile, men also haven’t been at ease with a woman who is clearly keen and learned.    We’ve made the great mistake of contemptuously assuming that a woman can’t be alluring and astute, have deep feeling and at the same time, power of mind and intellect.

Once in a class, Mr. Siegel spoke of Florence Sabin, a noted medical scientist, and said, “The male population should meet her [because] she was so exact.”  And he asked if I had ever met a sensible woman, and then added with critical humor, “If you did, the best thing to do is to forget it.  That way you’ll keep intact.”  I needed to hear that, and I thank Mr. Siegel for encouraging the best thing in me.

Listening to this duet, it is very hard to “keep intact”:

As these women sing, they are not for a moment foolish or gushy.  They are precise, subtle, and passionate.  These qualities are present in a woman’s mind all the time, whether she’s thinking about flowers or a scientific equation; and for a man to be intelligent about women, and feel he’s kind, he has to want to see and honor those qualities.

The voices of Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbié are each a sublime relation of boldness and restraint, directness and stunning nuance.  This can be heard in the middle section of the duet, where they first alternate, and then come together.

Surprising and deep things happen at the duet’s end, as Lakmé and Mallika step into a barge, and then depart over the water.  While this section is largely played by the orchestra, whose harmonies return somewhat to the dark quality of the recitative, one feels a quiet but oh so graceful dance within it, and sounds that I think represent the gentle passing of time.  It culminates with the singers repeating the melody but now their voices are very much in the distance.

Earlier the voices soared; here we have the “fadingness” of reality, its poignancy, and perhaps even its frailty—and both ways have power.

I’m very glad to be learning from Aesthetic Realism what men everywhere are hoping to know, and grateful to Leo Delibes and his beautiful music!