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Most of us would be hard pressed to describe the characters, plot or musical development of Delibes’s three-act opera Lakmé.
Its resurgent popularity in the 1990s was down to one thing: the use of one particular section of the opera in a certain television commercial. The Flower Duet first appeared in a British Airways advert in 1989 and quickly became one of the most well-known pieces of classical music in Britain.
Up until then, the opera had lain in relative obscurity. Its only slight success had been that, unlike other operas by the composer, this one had remained in the repertoire of major opera companies worldwide and continued to be held in high esteem by the classical music cognoscenti. It’s a tragic opera set in the Orient, a place known for its beautiful flowers – hence the title of this duet, sung by the principal character Lakmé and her slave Mallika. The sumptuous, exotic music is light, delicate and instantly beautiful, much like the flowers it depicts.
The Flower Duet’s use in popular culture isn’t restricted only to those British Airways commercials. More recently, it’s been heard in films such as Meet the Parents and True Romance and television shows including The Simpsons.
Natalie Dessay (soprano) as Lakmé; Delphine Haidan (soprano) as Mallika; Gregory Kunde (tenor) as Gerald; José van Dam (bass-baritone) as Nilakantha; Toulouse Capitole Choir and Orchestra; Michel Plasson (conductor).
EMI Classics: CDS 5565692.
Illustration: Mark Millington