Bizet's one-act opera comique, Djamileh (1872) evokes a vision of the non-Western world, like so many other musical, literary and artistic efforts in nineteenth-century France. Meyerbeer's L´Africaine (1865), David's La Perle du Brésil (1851) and Lalla Roukh (1862), Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila (1877), Delibes' Lakmé (1883) as well as Bizet's own Picheurs de perles (1863) and Carmen (1875) serve as a few of the other operatic examples. Before 1870 French musicians tended to focus their attention on North Africa and the Near or Middle East where French economic and political interests were strongest; later they also explored subjects set in the Far East. Some plots feature the encounter of a European traveler, explorer or soldier with the Oriental Other, but exotic settings may also be used to create a fantasy, the dream of another life. Djamileh belongs to the second group, and draws its audience into a dream with a fairy-tale setting in a Cairo palace and an opening sequence with such mood-creating features as a backstage chorus, smoke from a water pipe, and a silent first appearance of the heroine.
An Arabian fairy tale may have seemed a particularly appropriate morsel to help the bourgeoisie escape from stressful realty in the first full opera season after the national humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War and the destruction caused by the Commune, but Louis Gallet had actually completed this libretto several years earlier, during the brilliant gaiety of the Second Empire. He based his slight tale on Alfred de Musset's "conte oriental" Namouna (1833). Musset wrote his poem during the flush of French Romanticism that also produced Victor Hugo's Orientales (1829).. He began his capricious musings with the description of an indolent and drowsy Hassan, lying on a sofa after his bath, nude and smoking an opium pipe while the sun was setting. As a pastime Hassan, portrayed as a Don Juan without idealism, buys two slave girls each month and discards them when the month is over. Only the last ten of 147 stanzas tell the tale of Namouna. In Musset's poem she is a blonde Spaniard who chooses to forgo her liberty out of love for Hassan. Among other elements the poet has incorporated stereotyped European images of the Orient: heightened sensuality and the fantasy of the submissive and available female. Gallet retained Musset's sunset, the smoke, and of course, the Orientalist stereotypes - the decadence of Hassan (renamed Haroun) and the submissive total love of Namouna (renamed Djamileh). He added the opportunities for arias, duets, a trio, a sensuous ballet and choruses of Nile boatmen and Haroun's gambling friends; in addition, he created an opéra-comique character, Splendiano, an Osmin-like tutor and servant with a crush on the beautiful slave.
Bizet was not a traveler, thought he may well have read travelers' descriptions of their adventures in the Orient, enjoyed exotic - paintings like those of Delacroix, Ingres or Henri Regnault (a young admirer of Bizet's music), and soaked in the sounds of Egyptian and Turkish musicians when he attended the International Exposition in Paris during 1867; exotic texts had stimulated his creative imagination before. Camille du Lode, the younger of two directors of the Opera Comique, may have known of Bizet's predilection when he recalled Gallet's libretto from the composer Jules Duprato and offered it to Bizet. But du Lode had been attracted to other oriental subjects as well. An acquaintance of archeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, he had forwarded Mariette's scenario for Aida to Verdi, written the prose draft of the opera with the composer, and visited Cairo in preparation for the Aida premiere in December 1871. It was du Lode who suggested the name "Djamileh" (from the Arabic word for "lovely"). During rehearsals of Bizet's work he took great pains to insist on authentic oriental furniture and costumes.
Bizet found the text difficult to set but accepted the libretto in July 1871, in part because he wished to keep his name before the public until he could return with a full-length work. (His Jolie Fille de Perth had briefly graced the stage of the Théatre-Lyrique some four years earlier; Carmen would not have its troubled premiere until March 1875.) Djamileh was presented that next spring at the Opéra-Comique as the second of three one-act operas by promising composers of the "new school" - Paladilhe's Le Passant in April, Bizet's Djamileh in May, and Saint-Saëns' La Princesse jaune in June. The last, also penned by Gallet, features another orientalist plot, this time about a Dutchman, fascinated by all things Japanese, who drinks a potion and is transported to Japan in his fantasy. None of the three works succeeded with the public or the press. All three young composers were attacked for Wagnérisme (essentially as catchword to refer to newer styles with their more complex harmony and a more active role for the orchestra), and indeed, there was a certain sharper edge to such anti-German criticism in 1872 because of Wagner's insulting comments about the recent French defeat.
Bizet's friend, the perceptive critic/composer Ernest Reyer, said, "It is absolutely necessary if your Arab music is to charm us, that it, too, becomes civilized." And so Bizet, like others of his generation, did not seek to create his vision of the Orient with ethnomusicological accuracy, but turned instead to an accepted repertory of musical elements that the French public anticipated finding in an Orientalist work: for melody, the augmented second, melisma, ambiguous major/minor shifts and lowered leading tone; for rhythm, repetitive patterns or alternating meters; for harmony, long pedal tones and open fifths. Orchestration might involve a tambourine as in Bizet's poetic opening backstage chorus where a tambourine plays an ostinato rhythm and a piano strikingly punctuates the end of each segment with a passage of chromatic descent. Djamileh's Ghazel and later the sensuous "Danse de l'Aimée" also exploit ostinato rhythm and sinuous chromatic melody. Again and again passages for Djamileh are set apart from the lighter, more diatonic style of the men, her depth of character highlighted by the chromaticism and accented dissonance that Bizet's contemporaries associated with Wagner.
Bizet himself admitted that Djamileh was not a success. The libretto contained too little action, and the cast included a beginning tenor, a singing actor, and a baroness of great beauty but limited experience and talent. (Even with Bizet in the prompter's box to help her she skipped thirty-two bars in the Ghazel.) The opera disappeared from the stage of the Opéra-Comique after eleven performances that spring. Although it was revived in various European capitals beginning in the 1890s and acquired such illustrious admirers as Mahler and Strauss, Bizet's first truly mature opera has held a tenuous place in the repertory despite the strong music for the vibrant central figure, magically effective orchestration, and an atmosphere perfumed with intense lyricism and evocative exoticism.