Beautiful betrayals

When the Iron Curtain fell, there were great hopes and expectations on both sides and one of the buzz phrases of the day was “joint venture”, so at the computer graphics conference I attended in St Petersburg in 1993, there was a hall dedicated to various proposed joint ventures between Russian and Western companies, hopeful Western computer manufacturers showing off their latest hardware to Russian customers who couldn't afford to buy any of it. The hall was, as such things are wont to be, pretty noisy, but suddenly something like a sonic blowtorch cut through the noise and on one of the screens I saw things you people wouldn’t believe, but then it ended and I realised I had just caught the last few seconds of a computer animation with music, but of what, I did not know.

A couple of years later I attended a computer graphics seminar at a conference hotel in Linköping. The speaker was fast-forwarding through a VHS tape and I glimpsed this same animation, but it was not part of the presentation. However, I asked for, and received!, permission to return to the room and go through the tapes on my own after dinner.

So, there I sat, late at night in a dark conference room in Linköping, watching and listening to the L’Opéra imaginaire version of « Dôme épais le jasmin » from Lakmé, tears streaming down my face.

As soon as I could I bought the full opera recording with Sutherland, Vanzo, Bacquier, and Berbié, conducted by Bonynge. I immediately brought it to the lab to share all this beauty with my coworkers. They were mostly amused by my excitement, but one person, composer of electro-acoustic music, rushed out of his room, screaming: “Of all the noise you make here, this was the worst!” and slammed the lab door closed, so as to keep the rest of the institute secure from the noise pollution.

I myself was pleased to find that apart from the Flower Duet there were several other songs that lingered in my ears. I was however a bit put off by the orchestra crescendo at the death of Lakmé, I felt a solemn fadeout would have been more respectful.

I noted that the plot, with a Western officer seducing and then abandoning an Asian woman, was quite similar to that of Madama Butterfly. Only much later did I find out that both operas may have been based on stories by Pierre Loti—the English Wikipedia entry for Madama Butterfly asserts that it is based on his novel Madame Chrysanthème, whereas the French entry denies this. (The Italian does not mention Loti at all.)

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