Léo Delibes: Flower Duet 

Léo Delibes’ three act opera Lakmé is perhaps this French composer’s most well-known work. Composed between 1881-1882, Lakmé is based on Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti, and Les babouches du Brahamane by Théodore Pavie. Flower Duet features in Act 1 of the opera, and is now performed as a stand alone vocal piece in concert programmes. As potentially one of the most famous opera duets ever, Flower Duet has been used in modern media. The most famous example will be from the 1980s British Airways adverts.

Flower Duet is scored for a soprano and a mezzo soprano, and the characters of Lakmé and her servant Mallika are the people who sing it in the opera. The women have taken a trip down to the riverbank to pick flowers and bathe in the river, and from this they begin to sing Flower Duet. Below are the original French lyrics, an English translation, and the character that sings the different lines:

 

French Original with Literal English Translation 

L: Dôme épais le jasmin/Thick dome of jasmine

M: Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin/Under the dense canopy where the white jasmine,

L: À la rose s’assemble,/Blends with the rose,

M: À la rose s’assemble,/That blends with the rose,

L: Rive en fleurs, frais matin,/Bank in bloom, fresh morning,

M: Sur la rive en fleurs, riant au matin,/On the flowering bank, laughing in the morning,

L: Nous appellent ensemble./Call us together.

M: Viens, descendons ensemble./Come, let us drift down together.

 

L: Ah! glissons en suivant/Ah! Let’s glide along

M: Doucement glissons; De son flot charmant/Let us gently glide along; For its enchanting flow

L: Le courant fuyant;/The fleeing current;

M: Suivons le courant fuyant;/Let us follow the fleeing current;

L: Dans l’onde frémissante,/On the rippling surface,

M:  Dans l’onde frémissante,/On the rippling surface,

L: D’une main nonchalante,/With a nonchalant hand,

M:  D’une main nonchalante,/With a nonchalant hand,

L: Gagnons le bord,/Let’s go to the shore,

M: Viens, gagnons le bord/Come, let’s go to the shore

L: Où l’oiseau chante,/Where the bird sings,

M: Où la source dort./Where the spring sleeps.

 

L:  l’oiseau, l’oiseau chante./Tjhe bird, the bird sings.

M: Et l’oiseau, l’oiseau chante./And the bird, the bird sings.

L: Dôme épais, blanc jasmin,/Thick dome, white jasmin,

M: Sous le dôme épais, Sous le blanc jasmin,/Under the dense canopy, under the white jasmine.

L: Nous appellent ensemble!/Call us together!

M: Ah! descendons ensemble!/Ah! Let’s drift down together!

 

L: Mais, je ne sais quelle crainte subite
 s’empare de moi./But, an eerie feeling of distress overcomes me

 Quand mon père va seul à leur ville maudite,/When my father goes into their accursed city

 Je tremble, je tremble d’effroi!/I tremble, I tremble with fright!

M: Pour que le Dieu Ganeça le protège,/In order for him to be protected by Ganesh

Jusqu’à l’étang où s’ébattent joyeux/To the pond where joyfully play

Les cygnes aux ailes de neige,/The snow-winged swans,

Allons cueillir les lotus bleus./Let us puck blue lotuses.

L: Oui, près des cygnes aux ailes de neige,/Yes, near the swans with wings of snow,

Allons cueillir les lotus bleus./And pick blue lotuses.

 

L: Dôme épais le jasmin/Thick dome of jasmin

M: Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin/Under the dense canopy where the white jasmin,

L: À la rose s’assemble,/Blends with the rose,

M: À la rose s’assemble,/That blends with the rose,

 

L: Rive en fleurs, frais matin,/Bank in bloom, fresh morning,

M: Sur la rive en fleurs, riant au matin,/On the flowering bank, laughing in the morning,

L: Nous appellent ensemble./Call us together.

M: Viens, descendons ensemble./Come, let us drift down together.

 

L: Ah! glissons en suivant/Ah! Let’s glide along

M: Doucement glissons; De son flot charmant/Let us gently glide along;For its enchanting flow

L: Le courant fuyant;/The fleeing current;

M: Suivons le courant fuyant;/Let us follow the fleeing current;

L: Dans l’onde frémissante,/ On the rippling surface

M: Dans l’onde frémissante,/On the rippling surface

L: D’une main nonchalante,/With a nonchalant hand,

M: D’une main nonchalante,/With a nonchalant hand,

 

L: Gagnons le bord,/Let’s go to the shore,

M: Viens, gagnons le bord/Come, let’s go to the shore

L: Où l’oiseau chante,/Where the bird sings,

M: Où la source dort./Where the spring sleeps.

L: l’oiseau, l’oiseau chante./The bird, the bird sings.

M: Et l’oiseau, l’oiseau chante./And the bird, the bird sings.

L: Dôme épais, blanc jasmin,/Thick dome, white jasmine,

M: Sous le dôme épais, Sous le blanc jasmin,/Under the dense canopy, Under the white jasmine,

 

L: Nous appellent ensemble!/Together call us!

M:  Ah! descendons ensemble!/Ah! Let’s drift down together!

 

The Music

Written in a lilting 6/8 time signature, Flower Duet is a beautiful homage to the beautiful flowers the women have found surrounding the riverbank. Largely in B major, this song is less about extravagant key changes, but the melodic framework and portraying the lyrics in a certain way. The lyrics are innocent and the way the voices move together symbolises this.

Within the first bar the voices are singing in a call and response style, but this soon changes when they come together in the line ‘À la rose s’assemble’. This line, which is about blend between the different flowers on the riverbank is represented through the voices coming together and blending on this ascending melodic line. The word painting that Delibes uses throughout this aria is effective, and brings the two voices together on pinnacle lines.

Flower Duet describes Lakmé’s picturesque surroundings, which gives the listener a sense of a tranquil, idyllic world. There is also a sense of naivety within this aria. The lyrics are innocent and the way it is sung highlights the lyrics and the easy-going nature of the song. Delibes’ subtle use of dynamic and tempo changes enhances the effect of the voices, both together and on their own. This aria exudes beauty and the way the two sopranos move together is elegant, but without taking anything away from the lyrics. Still regularly performed and recorded today, Flower Duet is a timeless classic.

Happy Reading!

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