For all the exoticism in Lalla Roukh, there’s some local interest here: Félicien David’s opera is based on one of the most famous works of Thomas Moore, the celebrated Irish poet (and musician) who died 170 years ago this year.
Opéra-comique in two acts
Libretto by Michel Carré and Hyppolyte Lucas
(after Thomas Moore’s poem Lalla Rookh)
Sung in French with English surtitles
First performance: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 1862
Born in Dublin to a mother who came from Wexford, Moore enjoyed immediate success with his Irish Melodies — the source of such famous songs as The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer — and his ‘Oriental romance’ Lalla Rookh increased that fame. Tapping into Romantic sensibilities and capitalising on the popularity of The Thousand and One Nights, it inspired several operas by composers as diverse as Gaspare Spontini and Anton Rubinstein, not to mention Charles Villiers Stanford’s first opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, heard at Wexford in 2019. Further indicating its wide appeal to composers, there is also Schumann’s great choral-orchestral work Paradies und die Peri.
Even in this company, David’s work stands out for its delicate evocation of Kashmir and Samarkand. It has been praised for its ‘dreamy atmosphere and aromatic orchestration’. The hard-to-please Héctor Berlioz was quick to admire Lalla Roukh and it was almost instantly recognised as the composer’s masterpiece.
Wexford audiences will know David from his somewhat heavier Herculanum, staged at the festival in 2016 and dating from four years before Lalla Roukh. He enjoyed an unusual career, beginning with his apprenticeship as a young boy in the cathedral choir at Aix-en-Provence. Most of his creative work was done in Paris, but when it came to musical exoticism he knew what he was talking — or, rather, writing — about. Having joined the radical religious sect of the Saint-Simonians, when it was disbanded by the government he travelled with a group of friends preaching its gospel in the Ottoman lands and going as far as Egypt. His remarkable ode-symphonie Le Désert was an early musical manifestation of this, but Lalla Roukh is a more mature example of his talent for evoking the picturesque.
The Indian princess Lalla Roukh has been promised in marriage to the King of Bukhara and departs there in a caravan with her confidants. But on her way to meet her future husband at his summer palace, she becomes captivated by the mysterious singing of a minstrel Nourreddin, so much so that she falls in love with him and resolves not to marry the king. The new couple meet at night and Lalla Roukh declares that she will rather live in a simple cottage in Kashmir with Nourreddin and promises to confess all this to the king when they arrive at their destination. Unbeknown to her, and wanting to test his bride, the king had disguised himself as the minstrel and intercepted the caravan. All is revealed upon arrival, and they live happily ever after …
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by Felician David