Delibes’ Flower Duet is so widely known, that you instantly know it without actually knowing it, but what’s the story?

French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1891) is remembered primarily for his popular ballet Coppélia (1870) and for his 1883 opera Lakmé. The “Flower Duet” (“Viens, Mallika”) from Lakmé has been sending shivers up listeners’ spines for more than 130 years.

When you hear the great Joan Sutherland (soprano) sing with Huguette Tourangeau (mezzo-soprano), you’ll see what I mean. The music is heavenly, so heavenly in fact that it’s been used as the theme song for an airline.

But what’s the story?

We’re in nineteenth century colonial India, where the locals are peeved because Hinduism has been outlawed. The opera opens with high priest Nilakantha urging worshippers to come to the temple and pray for the British to get the hell out of India.

Meantime his daughter Lakmé and her maid Mallika go to the river to bathe. Lakmé removes her jewellery and the two women sing the famous “Flower Duet”, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Not long after, two British officers arrive with some friends and they admire the garden and temple. One officer, Gerald, wants to make a sketch of Lakmé’s jewels, so stays behind while the others walk on. Lakmé returns and is fascinated by the foreigner’s attractiveness. He too, finds Lakmé very fetching and naturally they fall in love. Lakmé urges Gerald to hightail it out of the temple precinct because he’ll cop it from her dad.

Nilakantha returns, realises the hated Brits have been there and calls for vengeance. So off he goes to the markets, and makes Lakmé sing the other famous aria from the opera, the “Bell Song”, thinking that the man who profaned the temple will hear Lakmé’s voice and reveal himself, which he does.

Nilakantha stabs Gerald, but he’s not very good at stabbing and Gerald is only wounded. Lakmé takes Gerald to a hideaway where she tends to his wound. She’s pretty happy, exclaiming that she’ll live only for him.

She goes off to get water from a sacred spring, telling Gerald that everyone who drinks this water remains faithful to their true love, but you know these things never go to plan. If they did, there wouldn’t be an opera.

Gerald’s pal Frederic finds him and reminds him that he’s a British officer committed to the Empire and all that imperialistic hoohah, so when Lakmé gets back with the sacred water, Gerald dithers around and doesn’t drink. Love or country, what will he do?

Lakmé recognises that he’s prevaricating and eats a leaf from a poisonous tree. As you do when your lover is a ditherer.

Nilakantha arrives and she tells him that she and Gerald both drank from the spring. The lie saves Gerald’s life and placates Nilakantha, and Lakmé atones for the sin of loving a foreigner by killing herself. That’s it – the opera ends.

Typical. The men get to live another day, while poor Lakmé has to go meet her Maker.

Now to the “Flower Duet” (“Viens, Mallika!”). To be honest, there’s not much in it. Lakmé and Mallika are basically admiring the flowers, particularly the white jasmine, roses and lotuses before setting off for a lovely row down the river while listening to the birds singing.

Okay, so there’s one moment where Lakmé is worried for her father, but the duet is really a paean to flowers, birds and having a charming time.

(It’s sort of comforting to know that Lakmé managed to have that last jaunt down the river before love and tragedy intervened.)

Have another listen to the duet now that you know the story, and try to banish from your mind those times when you’ve heard it in an elevator or something. It really is a gorgeous piece of music.

You can check out the words here.

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