Saturday, January 12, 2008


Padmavati, 1918, by Albert Roussel is an opera ballet set in India. The plot is relatively simple: Padmavati, the wife of the magnanimous prince Ratan-Sen, is desired by the enemy mogul Alaouddin. He promises peace to the land of Ratan-Sen if Padmavati is turned over to him. Otherwise the entire population will be massacred. When Padmavati hears of this agreement, she stabs her husband and goes to her own death in the traditional act of suttee on her husband's funeral pyre. In this context suttee is an act of female assertiveness. She does not wish to become another man's wife, and controls events to this end.

It is a neglected work, so what one wishes to know is why. Some consider it Roussel's most significant work. It is said to include orientalisms, modes, scales, etc. I don't really hear them. I hear a post-romantic orchestral style most obviously associated with movie music. It isn't that far distant from Franco Alfano's similarly oriental La leggenda di Sakùntala, 1921. They represent a style that is completely unrepresented in contemporary repertoire. That happens. Not only do the works of minor composers disappear from awareness, occasionally this is true of entire style periods. The movies that use this type of music still play, so the style is mentally associated with movies.

The style includes a large orchestra with extensive choral augmentation, including lots of humming chorus. One could easily imagine a staging similar to Sakuntala with chorus arranged around the sides of the stage. The center of the stage would need to be open to allow for ballet.

I was listening to Turandot on the radio last night, specifically the recording by Pavarotti, Sutherland and Caballe. What a wonderful recording this is. (For more on the subject of Turandot and Sakuntala see here.)

I mention this because these three operas clearly form a group with Roussel in the lead. He had a personal interest in India and had visited the city where the Padmavati story originated. The others where clearly following his example.

The leading character is a mezzo, here sung by Marilyn Horne in a part well out of her coloratura specialty. The other leads are equally distinguished: Jose van Dam and Nicolai Gedda. The music is very beautiful, but it doesn't suggest anything theatrical, not even a movie.

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