Albert Roussel: Padmâvatî (1923)

Opera en deux actes. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

This is my answer to Holst’s Savitri, another tale of wifely devotion from India. But first a bit of my speciality: a dose of history. This opera is based on the 1540 Hindi poem Padmavat by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It is set in the city of Chitor (Tchitor in French) in what is now the province of Rajasthan, India around the year 1303 during a Mogul invasion. Although the title character is fictional, the two kings in this story, Ratan-Sen of Chitor and the Mogul Sultan Alaouddin were historical figures and the siege at least was an historical event during the Mogul conquest of India. Roussel had visited the ruins of Chitor in 1909 and had the orientalist Louis Laloy write up a libretto based on a French play by one Pavie based on the Jayasi poem. The opera is dedicated to Roussel’s wife.

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PLOT: Chitor, India, 1303. Alaouddin has been besieging the city for some time and finally a peace talk is started. Ratan-Sen, the King of Chitor, shows him around the palace. Upon seeing the King’s wife Padmavati, however, Alaouddin decides that he will either have her or destroy the city in order to get her. Later, in the temple of Shiva, Ratan-Sen gives his wife the choice between submitting to the invader in order to save the population from extermination or death, she chooses the latter and stabs her husband to death. Then she commits suicide in a long ritual of suttee, at the end of which Alaouddin arrives to find the temple devoid of life and his prize lost forever.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEgWYzz-iCQ

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The grand hall of the palace of Ratan-Sen, a balcony visible above. (51.5 minutes)

0: The prelude * is a long piece (five solid minutes) and starts off somewhat like the prelude to Pelleas et Melisande but eventually it gets some teeth and turns into half-brooding march, half-Le Sacre du printemps in the last two minutes.

9: The arrival of Alaouddin gradually gets better as he discusses peace terms with Ratan-Sen (inconclusive though it might be) and then the chorus has a momentary freak out **. Alaouddin asks to be taken around the city (a very odd request given the fact that he has been besieging it?) Ratan-Sen obliges. Eventually Alaouddin admits to preferring flesh and blood to stone achievements.

15: The Warrior Dance * starts off furious and seems like the sort of thing one would witness in a Cecil B. DeMille film a decade or so later.

19: The Dance of the Female Slaves ** is a bit more lively.

23: The Dance of the Women of the Palace *. After yet another dialogue between the two men this next number is good albeit a little like something Rachmaninoff. 

33: Alaouddin asks rather slyly to see Ratan-Sen’s wife who is known for her beauty and virtue. Ratan-Sen is reluctant to do this but permits it in a rather beautiful passage of tenor vocal writing for a tenor Brahmin ***. The chorus gets a little excited.

35: Padmavati comes on the balcony above the hall as a mezzo servant girl named Nakamti also sings of her mistress’ beauty rather hauntingly **.

39: Alaouddin asks that the Queen take off her veil **. Ratan-Sen protests but permits this and Alaouddin obviously falls in love with her instantly and demands that Ratan-Sen hand her over to him at once as his half of the peace. This is obviously madness but those of Alaouddin’s terms.

41: The Brahman has been left behind by his master Alaouddin and is set upon and killed by the people of Chitor, but not after yet another lovely patch of tenor arioso **.

44: Ratan-Sen contemplates more war (unwanted though it is) **.

46: The chorus can be heard outside making the call to arms as Padmavati comes on and delivers her contralto (she is definitely a contralto role, she never sings above G-flat 5) foreboding as she looks upon the corpse of the murdered Brahman. Taken in total a very effective scene ***.

ACT 2: The temple of Siva. (43.5 minutes)

0: The act starts off with yet another prelude ** although it one is only about half as long.

4: The chorus is a little striking ** as Padmavati, her companions, and the priests, all do their respective things (fret about the impending invasion of the city by Alaouddin, pray to Siva to save them). As a priest comes on there are references to the Printemps theme from the act one prelude.

10: Ratan-Sen comes in wounded ** and confronts his wife with the inevitable.

18: The death of Ratan-Sen ***, after giving his wife the choice between death or submission to another man (a rather swift choice for her to make actually). The chorus can be heard again off stage.

21: Padmavati gathers her ladies to herself in order to prepare for the funeral rites ***.

26: The start of the pantomime **, the daemons of Siva persuade Padmavati in dance to perform the awful ritual.

28: They go into yet another dance **

32: The long funerary sequence *** starts off with the haunting single-syllabic chanting of the women. All the forces of the chorus and orchestra come upon our heroine to make for an amazing death by fire. It becomes rather primitive in places, and starts to feel just a wee bit too long but taken in total it is amazing. Watch out in particular to the last three minutes after the chorus has mostly finished their thing and the suicide-funeral is completed.

COMMENTS:

Padmavati is a dark work, but a very good one. I would call it a latter-day grand opera, but it is properly termed an opera-ballet in the score. It does have many of the elements of a grand opera (ballets up the lala although these make dramatic sense for a change, historical setting, exotic sensuality, somewhat cultural clash, at the very least cultural exposure) and of course this being post-1890 French opera the obligatory awesome contralto heroine doing her nut even though there oddly isn’t very much of her. I really like this work, and I hope you do too. An alpha.

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