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.
The Hindus go to perform their rites in a sacred Brahmin temple under the high priest, Nilakantha. Nilakantha's daughter Lakmé (which derives from the Sanskrit Lakshmi ) and her servant Mallika are left behind and go down to the river to gather flowers where they sing the " Flower Duet ". As they approach the water at the river bank, Lakmé removes her jewelry and places it on a bench. A party of British officers, Frederic and Gérald, arrive nearby while on a picnic with two British girls and their governess. The British girls see the jewelry and request sketches; Gérald volunteers to stay and make sketches of the jewelry. He sees Lakmé and Mallika returning and hides. Mallika leaves Lakmé for a while; while alone Lakmé sees Gérald and, frightened by the foreigner's incursion, cries out for help. However, simultaneously, she is intrigued and so she sends away those who had responded to her call for help when they come to her rescue. Lakmé and Gérald begin to fall in love with each other. Nilakantha returns and learns of the British officer's trespassing and vows revenge on him for his affront to Lakmé's honor.