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Léo DELIBES


Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs (the Flower Duet from Lakmé )

French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1891) began his professional life in 1853, having completed studies at the Paris Conservatory. Working as a rehearsal pianist and chorus master for operetta and opera productions, he spent a decade at the Théâtre Lyrique before moving up to the more prestigious Paris Opéra; in 1881 he would return to the Conservatory as a composition professor. In the meantime theater life obviously agreed with him, and he enjoyed a long string of successes at first composing light-hearted operettas similar to those by Offenbach. Delibes wrote over two dozen works for the stage, the best-known of which are the ballet Coppelia (1870), and the opera Lakmé (1883), from which Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs (the Flower Duet) is universally known, thanks to British Airways using it in commercials since 1989.

March and Procession of Bacchus from Sylvia

French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1891) wrote over two dozen works for the stage, including the opera Lakmé (1883), from which the Flower Duet is universally known, thanks to British Airways using it in commercials since 1989. Delibes began his professional life in 1853, having completed studies at the Paris Conservatory. Working as a rehearsal pianist and chorus master for operetta and opera productions, Delibes spent a decade at the Théâtre Lyrique before moving up to the more prestigious Paris Opéra; in 1881 he would return to the Conservatory as a composition professor. In the meantime theater life obviously agreed with him, and he enjoyed a long string of successes composing light-hearted operettas similar to those by Offenbach. 

 The year 1868 brought a turning point (so to speak) when Delibes was asked to collaborate with Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus to produce a full-length ballet. Their La Source was a triumph, and its success led directly to a commission for Delibes' first masterpiece, Coppelia (1870), generally regarded as the first ballet music substantial enough to offer serious competition to opera since the days of Lully and Rameau.

Six years later Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane (1876) hit the stage. Due to its lackluster scenario Sylvia never got a lasting foothold in the repertoire--it took until 2004 before the complete ballet was produced in the United States. The music, however, has always been greatly admired. Tchaikovsky himself confessed that had he seen Delibes' score beforehand he would have been too intimidated to write Swan Lake, also completed in 1876.

Set in ancient Greece with Classical mythology as a backstory, the title character of Sylvia is an acolyte of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt and Chastity. Aminta, a naive shepherd, has fallen in love with Sylvia, but being sworn to chastity Sylvia becomes incensed with his advances. She blames Eros, the God of Love, and lets fly an arrow toward the god. Aminta grand jetés in front of Eros, collapsing as Sylvia's arrow strikes the selfless shepherd instead of its intended target. Eros retaliates with an arrow of his own, and Sylvia exits to tend her flesh wound. The huntsman Orion revels in Aminta's misfortune, which he has witnessed while stalking Sylvia from the shadows. Sylvia returns, now smitten with Aminta thanks to Eros' marksmanship, but Orion seizes her and drags her off to his cave. Eros resuscitates Aminta, and eventually helps Sylvia escape from Orion.

The March and Procession of Bacchus (Grand cortège de Bacchus) opens the last act, with Aminta awaiting the return of Sylvia while a crowd gathers at the Temple of Diana. The "March" is replete with fanfares, while the "Procession" offers a more lyrical approach. Orion disrupts the reunion by brawling with Aminta, and it takes some convincing for Diana to release Sylvia from her chastity vow. But in the end Love wins out, happily ever after.

(c)2014 by Edward Lein, all rights reserved

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