Saturday, March 3, 2012

Catleya....Cattleya... The Flower Duet.

I like looking around the very old ‘atmospheric’ parts of graveyards where the tombs are rarely carved from ageless, yet soulless marble, and you may come across the flights of spirituality and creativity displayed through the graves. However, what I particularly enjoy noting are the names of those long-since departed, ornately engraved into the headstones, even if now barely legible. With the erosion of time and the elements many of the inscriptions seem to have melted away like the icing on some intricate wedding cake.
But that’s not all – the very names themselves seem to have dissolved from our repertoire today so that however original we think we are when naming a child the result is somewhat bland in comparison. How can you compete with the resonance of Seraphina, Euphemia, Ophelia, Zillah, Cornelia, Araminta, Phineas, Clarence, Lucius or the beautiful name Zepherin that I discovered inscribed on a stone today… Some would seem more than a little heavy today, and would prove to be a great weight to carry, but I rejoice in seeing them nevertheless. Yet even if I mourn the passing of such unusual, yet dignified names I do occasionally encounter some odd specimens in the living world of today. Cattleya, as a girl’s name, must be the most noticeable one to date….. 
 Cattleya is the innocent-sounding name given to the highly-popular species of orchids that decorate interiors far and wide. Originating in Central and South America these were brought to England towards the 1820’s, apparently largely by fluke, as legend has it. Indeed the plants had been used to bulk up the containers of other botanical specimens to be shipped abroad. Finally arriving in England these ‘new’ plants were cultivated out of curiosity by a certain William Cattley. Producing unusual scented flowers of lavender, crimson and gold with distinctive frilly-edged labellum, this particular orchid was named Cattleya in 1824 in Cattley’s honour by a famous botanist. The term was to be applied to the other 113 species of the genus and the cattleya heralded the beginning of a craze for orchids amongst Victorians already avid for exotic ferns and foliage. Today the thirst for the ubiquitous orchid seems to be stronger than ever, to the point that I see them everywhere, but sadly never notice them anymore…
 Since everything seemed to be have been killed off by the cold weather last month I decided to go to a garden centre just to see something bright and blooming. Looking closely at the orchids I rediscovered just how incredibly exotic these plants truly are. The colour, shape, texture and the visual perfection of the petals are oddly artificial in their beauty. They truly seem to have a form that goes beyond mere physical function – the attraction of pollinators… 
  The 19th century French author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) presumably read more into the form of the Cattleya too and certainly gave the flower a whole new meaning. In his novel Un Amour de Swann, second part of Du côté de chez Swann from the vast A la recherche du temps perdu, the reader encounters the nascent infatuation of Swann for the demi-mondaine, Odette de Crécy, and witnesses his amourous overtures. In an attempt to gain a sentimental and physical proximity to the object of his ‘love’, Swann chooses to reposition the orchids that Odette pins onto the plunging neckline of her evening gowns. Seeing that this flower-arrangement ploy brings him what he most desires, Swann uses the expression “faire catleya” to signify the physicality he wishes to pursue.
  I remember our (male) French teacher explaining all of this to us in class, telling us to look at the orchid itself in order to understand the expression better, and I certainly recall how we embarrassed we were when the saw the flower in question… I had forgotten that Proust had chosen to write his verb with a single ‘t’, and so on encountering the student of that name I couldn’t believe that parents would give such a heavily-weighted appellation their unsuspecting offspring. How raunchy – even if we are in France! I didn’t like to inquire in front of the class, but later realized that she was named in honour of the virginal orchid after all! I was a little disappointed… 
I did see the film Un Amour de Swann when it came out in 1984. I don’t now remember what I thought of the film itself at the time, I was too busy trying to keep up with the French language and look at Jeremy Irons!
Un Amour de Swann
Watching extracts again today I just love the elegance of the clothes and interiors, with or without the Cattleya. I grew out of Jeremy Irons…
 The orchids I saw recently reminded me of the Lakmé opera by Léo Delibes – the Flower Duet. This was a work based on the novel Rarahu by the French writer Pierre Loti, describing the ill-fated love between Lakmé, an Indian girl, and Gerald , a British colonial officer. The romantic exoticism of the piece contrasted with the social naturalism apparent in art and literature in the latter part of 19th France and fed an interest for all things Oriental. 
Clicking on the computer I discovered an association of names that certainly hadn’t occurred to me…  I had never fully appreciated the beauty of Charlotte Church’s voice. Her classical singing seems to defy all natural barriers or concepts – it goes into a realm that seems unnatural in its perfection. 
Below is Lakmé’s part in the Flower Duet scene, singing with her servant Mallika as they gather jasmin and roses by the river. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1883; I don’t know if Proust would have seen a performance at a later date.
Proust’s tomb can be seen at the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Paris – in sober, black marble – again I was a bit disappointed...
                                                Dôme épais le jasmin
                                                A la rose s'assemble
                                                Rive en fleurs frais matin
                                                Nous appellent ensemble
                                                Ah! glissons en suivant
                                                Le courant fuyant
                                                Dans l'on de frémissante
                                                D'une main nonchalante
                                                Gagnons le bord,
                                                Où l'oiseau chante, l'oiseau, l'oiseau chante
                                                Dôme épais, blanc jasmin
                                                Nous appellent ensemble!

The humble cabbage - the only 'flower' to have survived winter in the town centre!


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