"Among too many stupid ballets," Debussy wrote at the turn of the century, "Lalo's Namouna is something of a masterpiece." Such an estimation is well in keeping with the score's glowing color, melodic richness, rhythmic verve, and overall vibrancy. And Debussy confirms his admiration by breezily alluding to its sérénade in the Assez vif et bien rythmé movement of his own String Quartet. Given the constraints under which Namouna was composed, one can only marvel at its wealth of ingratiating invention.
In 1879, perhaps as a consideration for having refused his opera, Le roi d'Ys, the newly appointed director of the Paris Opéra, Auguste Vaucorbeil, commissioned a ballet from Lalo for production in November, 1881. The fashioning of a scenario led to delays, with the chore being passed between the critic, Henri Blaze de Bury, the librettist, Charles Nuitter, and the choreographer, Lucien Petipa. Not until July, 1881, did Lalo have something in hand to compose to. Set on Corfu, the slender story of a slave girl passed between two wealthy playboys on the turn of a bet took on, chez Lalo, not only exotic color, but character and depth of feeling. The strain of rushing led to his hemiplegic stroke on December 10. The unrelenting Vaucorbeil moved to have the work completed by another hand, but Lalo rallied and, after an appeal to the Minister of the Interior, and with Gounod's help filling in the orchestration, he completed Namouna. Meanwhile, a hostile press had already set about denouncing the unheard Namouna, as "Wagnerian" -- an absurd charge routinely leveled at any music of symphonic scope. Namouna's premiere on March 6, 1882, was unsympathetically received, very likely because, striving for antiphonal effects, Lalo had groups of instruments not only in the pit, but on stage and in the front boxes. When these were placed together in the pit after the third performance, audience objections thinned, but Namouna was allowed a disappointing run of 15 performances.
The "Valse de la cigarette," in which Namouna rolls a cigarette for her lover, provoked a sensation. And several Moroccan melodies, heard at the 1878 World Exhibition, were employed to piquant effect. Sensing that he'd given some of his best inspiration to Namouna, Lalo salvaged a great deal of it in two suites, recomposing and re-orchestrating much of the music. Individual numbers were also exquisitely arranged -- the Andantino for violin and orchestra, and the Sérénade for strings -- while some of the score's most winning melodic materials were worked into a ravishing Fantaisie-ballet for violin and orchestra.