• Roussel's Exotic And Fascinating Opera-Ballet Padmavati


    , by the great but sadly under-appreciated French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937), is in my opinion one of the greatest of all French operas. Yet it has had puzzlingly few productions since its premiere in Paris in 1923.

    It is described by the composer as an opera/ballet in the French manner dating back to the 17th and 18th century tradition of operas which featured extensive ballet sequences.

    Padmavati is set in medieval India during the conquest of the so-called Moguls, whose leaders claimed descent from Genghis Khan but were in fact from Muslim Central Asian Turkish tribes and spoke a language very similar to Turkish and which survives to this day as the Uzbek language of Uzbekistan.

    About a century ago, Roussel went on a trip to India with his new wife on their honeymoon, and was able not only to absorb the atmosphere of that ancient and exotic land, but to gain some familiarity with Indian music. This inspired him to write Padmavati, and explains his ability to get much closer to the authentic feel of the subc0ntinent in the opera, unlike the entertaining but pseudo-Indian operas Lakmé and The Pearl Fishers by respectively Delibes and Bizet.


    The plot is simple and straightforward ; the powerful Mogul sultan Alauddin has come to the prosperous Indian city of Chitoor with his troops and elephants ostensibly to make peace with the Maharajah Ratan-Sen, who rules there. Bu the townspeople are very wary and apprehensive given the brutality of the conquerors. Alauddin is received formally and introduced to Ratan-Sen, who shows him the wonders of the city, its beautiful architecture and formal gardens, the beautiful dancing girls etc. The Sultan seems to be very friendly and even claims to have converted from Islam to Hinduism. But he has an ulterior motive. He has heard of Ratan-Sen's dazzlingly beautiful wife Padmavati, who is revered by the people of the city as almost divine. A Brahmin from the city has become his advisor, and has told him of this. The Brahmin is secretly enamored of Padmavati, and has been ostracized by the people.

    Reluctantly, the Maharajah presents Padmavati to him, and he is overwhelmed by her beauty. After he leaves, the Brahmin reveals the Sultan's appalling message to the city - unless Padmavati is handed over to him immediately, he and his troops will reduce the entire city to ashes and slaughter the entire populace! The Brahmin, who announces this, is immediately killed by an angry and frightened crowd, which tramples him to death. Ratan-Sen orders the city to prepare for war, and Padmavati expresses her fear and foreboding.

    In the second act, Padmavati, her atendants and the Brahmin priests have retreated to a secret temple in an isolated and impenetrable area nearby . The mood is extremely ominous, and Padmavati and all offer prayers to the Hindu gods.

    Suddenly, Ratan-Sen comes in after having valiantly fought the Moguls with his troops. He is wounded. The Maharajah desperately pleads with his wife to give herself up to the Sultan in order to save the people of the city. But she refuses adamantly and claims that her love for him is so great this would be a sacrilege, and he would be reborn as a vile and lowly animal to pay for this act of betrayal. Then, she stabs her husband to death so she will be required by Hindu law to commit Suttee, or the ritual burning of a widow. Now, she begins an elaborate ritual of immolation, and this is an extended ballet sequence.

    All of a sudden, the Sultan and his troops are heard outside clamoring for admittance to the temple. But Padmavati has been reduced to ashes! Everything has been in vain.


    Roussel's score is not conventionally melodious, but sinuously sensuous and rugged by turns, and filled with the most dazzlingly kaleidoscopic orchestral colors you could ever imagine. It is unlike any French opera you have ever heard, and absolutely fascinating . Roussel's harmonies are much more dissonant and pungent than those of his better-known contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.


    I got to know this remarkable opera some years ago from the superb EMI recording with a dream cast of Marilyn Horne and Nicolai Gedda, and Jose van Dam as the Sultan, with Michel Plasson conducting the Toulouse Capitole orchestra. It was reissued a few years ago by EMI, and I believe you can still get it at arkivmusic.com, by far the best place on the internet for hard-to-find classical CDs. Grab it if you can find it! [Editor's note: Amazon.com also has it, for $24.99 new and $14.99 used - link here]

    [Editor's note: the above reissue is available for immediate mp3 download from Amazon.com, and used for $25 - link here]

    There is an earlier live recording from London in 1969 live, with the late Rita Gorr, conducted by Jean Martinon, who was a pupil of the composer, but I have not heard this.

    [Editor's note - this one is also available new from several marketplace vendors at Amazon.com, and cheaper - starting at $11.62 - link here]

    There is a new Naxos recording of the suites from the opera with Stephane Deneve and the Royal Scottish orchestra.

    [Editor's note: Available at Amazon.com as mp3 for $7.99 and as CD for $11.12, link here]


    The most recent revival of Padmavati was in Paris about four years ago conducted by Lawrence Foster. Interestingly, the director was actually from India, and is one of the leading directors of Bollywood films. This was his first opera production. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have appeared on DVD yet, but I certainly hope it will.

    Padmavati has unfortunately yet to be performed in America, even in concert form, but let's hope that the indefatigable Leon Botstein willl remedy this situation soon. Christoph Eschenbach and the Washington National Symphony recently gave a performance of excerpts along with the world premiere of a work by a composer from India mixing Indian and western instruments.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Beyond The Standard Reperoire - Roussel's Exotic And Fascinating Opera/Ballet Padmava started by superhorn View original post
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      OK, you've convinced me. I've ordered my copy (the Rita Gorr version, cheaper).
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      I also admire this piece, a lot.

      Some years ago (well, this was about 17 years ago, I'm growing old), I was in the ruins of the Fort of Chittor myself, and remembered, in that remote era without the iPod, Roussel's opera.

      Funny enough, he was inspired by French and Indian sources, and get it wrong, because the legend of Padmâvati is about the first siege of Chittor, in early 14th century, during a war with the sultan of Delhi, who was in fact not a Mongol, but one of his fiercest enemies, and defeated them at that time. The Mongols were not succesful in India until the times of Timur Lane, almost one hundred years later, and the real conquest of India was performed by some of his descendents, already in the 16th century.

      Look at the way Indian music inspired Roussel in this aria:

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      OK, I got my CD on the mail. Big disappointment: no libretto. Do you guys know of an Internet source for a libretto?
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      OK, I listened to my CD. The opera is beautiful (although the first half is a bit too bombastic for my taste - it turns more lyrical as time goes by). I can't say I'm a big fan of the late Rita Gorr's steely timbre. I'd have probably liked it better if I had avoided being cheap and had purchased the preferred recording with Marilyn Horne instead of the cheaper Gorr version.
    1. Nekrotzar's Avatar
      Nekrotzar -
      As a lover of all things French, this is something I must investigate.

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