In this issue of Accord, we’re going to dive into the French mélodie “Sous le feuillage sombre” from the 1862 operetta Lalla-Roukh, by composer Félicien-César David. Click on the video below to listen to soprano Tharanga Goonetilleke’s beautiful performance with Chiragh, at SASO’s inaugural concert in April 2019.
Félicien David was born in 1810 in southeastern France. His father began to train him in music from a young age; however, the boy was orphaned by the age of 6. His pleasing voice and musical skills got him a role as a choirboy in a church, and here he nurtured his gifts, until the age of 15. He then received a scholarship to study literature at a Jesuit college, but he would abandon this three years into the degree to pursue a career in music. His talents were recognised and he was quite a celebrated composer during his life, though today his music is relatively unknown and infrequently performed. He wrote a number of operas, setting them in far off lands, such as Lalla-Roukh in Kashmir and Samarkand, and La perle du Brésil in Brazil.
Lalla-Roukh is an operetta, or an opera comique in two acts. It is named for its principal protagonist, whose name means “tulip-cheeked”. Lalla-Roukh is a Mughal princess, betrothed to King Nourreddin of Samarkand. In the aria “Sous le feuillage sombre”, Lalla-Roukh finds herself falling in love with the mysterious minstrel who sings by her window each evening. She is torn between this overwhelming emotion and her duty to marry a King from a faraway land. All’s well that ends well – it is ultimately discovered that the singer was none other than King Nourreddin in disguise, wanting to win Lalla-Roukh’s heart on his own merit.
The inspiration for this opera was the poem of the same name – Lalla-Rookh – that was, interestingly enough, published by the Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1817. Moore’s writings went on to inspire a number of literary texts based on Kashmir, and much of the perception of Kashmir of the time was influenced by the image he created with his words. This poem and opera hold a special place in the heart of Ambassador Rao, as she was involved in its revival in 2013, after decades of not being performed. In the article “Imagined Journeys to Cashmere: Lalla Rookh and Her Story” Ambassador Rao has written about Moore’s poetry and vision of Kashmir, and the fascination Moore and his contemporaries held for all things Eastern. Featured above are 19th-century sketches by Jules Marre, of the costumes of Lalla-Roukh and Nourreddin, disguised as a poet and in his royal attire.
The 2013 revival by Washington D.C. based Opera Lafayette featured costumes, jewellery and dances from India. The dance troupe Kalanidhi Dance performed a Kuchipudi dance as part of one of the acts.
“Sous le feuillage sombre” features beautifully shaped melodies and triplet rhythms in the 3/4 time signature that contribute to the feeling of restlessness, and being unsettled. Below the video, you can find the text in French, along with the English translation.
Sous le feuillage sombre Dans le silence et l’ombre It venait chaque soir! Sous notre ciel sans voiles Aux clartes des étoiles Mes yeux ont pu le voir!
O souvenir que j’aime Rêves de mes beaux jours Hélas! Malgre moi même Je vous fuis pour toujours.
Dans mon palais captive Immobile, attentive Et le coeur soucieux Je croix entendre encore Sa voix doux et sonore Ses chants mélodieux.”
“Under the dark foliage In the silence and shadow He came every evening! Under our clear sky By the light of the stars My eyes could see him!
O memory that I love Dreams of my beautiful days Alas! Despite myself I flee from you forever.
In my palace, captive Motionless, alert And anxious at heart I think I still hear His sweet and sonorous voice His melodious songs.