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Padmâvatî - excerpts

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Albert Roussel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Zakir Hussain, tabla / Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano Mar. 3 - 5, 2011
© Paul Horsley

Padmâvatî—Suite No. 1; Padmâvatî's aria from Act 1; Suite No. 2

Exoticism was a central theme for composers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, from splashy Russian evocations of the Middle East or "Orient" such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade or Borodin's Prince Igor to the delicate, self-conscious chinoiserie of Debussy, Ravel and others. South Asia did not escape treatment: Bizet's Pearl Fishers is set in ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Delibes' opera Lakmé, set in India, tells the story of a Brahmin priest's daughter and her love for an Englishman. The manner in which Asian elements are present in these works ranges widely, from mere flavorings lent by the use of exotic scales to a more thorough assimilation of melodic and rhythmic aspects of music heard on travels abroad or at international exhibitions — such as those in Paris that were the source of Debussy's fascination with gamelan ensembles and other Asian musics. Albert Roussel held a lifelong fascination with Asian culture, sparked initially perhaps by youthful travels to the Far East as a naval cadet, and bolstered later by an extended cruise he and his wife made in 1909 to India, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Unjustly overshadowed by his near-contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, during his day Roussel was considered a leading French musician of his generation. But unlike his better-known contemporaries, he began composing relatively late in life: His first substantial music was written when he was approaching 50. The early works leading up to World War I, which show the influence of his teacher Vincent d'Indy, include symphonies, tone poems, and theater works such as the ballet The Spider's Feast and the opera-ballet Padmâvatî. Throughout, his life Roussel maintained the stylistic rigors of his training at the Schola Cantorum, while continuing to infuse them with new influences: from Debussian Impressionism, the early works of Stravinsky and, later, the neoclassicism of the 1920s and '30s.

The impact of Roussel's travels of 1909 are felt most keenly in the Evocations for orchestra and in Padmâvatî, which tells the story of a 14th-century Queen of Chitor — the present Chittaurgarh in western India, whose ruins had made a deep impression on Roussel. The structure for Padmâvatî was inspired partly by Lalo's ballet Namouna, which Roussel had attended in 1908. "As we were leaving the theater, d'Indy opined that ‘Something worthwhile could be done with the ballet nowadays,' " Roussel wrote to a friend. "As you know, I entirely agree with him, and I believe the opera-ballet or rather ballet with soloists and chorus could be a delight … if only the poets would get down to it."

Less than two years later, armed with a libretto by poet Louis Laloy (on a book by Thédore Pavie), Roussel produced a unique hybrid, an "opera-ballet." Padmâvatî consists of a series of evocative dances interspersed with vocal numbers that are presented almost tableau-like. Biographer Basil Deane called it "a spectacle containing related dramatic scenes." Roussel completed the vocal score in 1914 but war prevented him from orchestrating it until 1918. It received its premiere on June 1, 1923 at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra, with Philippe Gaubert conducting a lavish production.

Padmâvatî was a pivotal work, Roussel's largest, most ambitious composition and one in which he started down a new path. "The style changed," as he described it, "the harmonic sequences became bolder and harsher, and the Debussian flavor has completely disappeared." No less of an authority than Nadia Boulanger admired Padmâvatî: "The choruses, dances, songs, characterizations, drama all combine in a close texture resembling one of those beautiful Oriental carpets in which many patterns, all separate and all necessary, come together, interlace, and balance one another."

The opera begins with a Prélude filled with foreboding; the opening scene is of a central outdoor plaza of Chitor. The Mongol Sultan Aladdin has entered the city of Chitor, ostensibly to sign a peace treaty, but with his troops gathered outside the city. Ratan-Sen, King of Chitor, receives him and provides entertainment in the form of dances. The Danse Guerrière (Warrior Dance) cultivates a raw brashness generated partly by the alternation of irregular 5/4 and 7/5 meters. The Danse des femmes esclaves (Slave Girls) trades on fleeting, light-hearted quirkiness. But the Sultan is not satisfied until he is permitted to see Queen Padmâvatî, whose beauty is legendary; when she appears he is powerfully moved, and leaves without signing a treaty. A Brahmin — who has earlier attested to the Sultan's conversion — appears with a message that if Padmâvatî is not delivered to the Sultan he will ransack the city. An angry mob attacks the Brahmin and kills him. Padmâvatî enters and, seeing the Brahmin's body, expresses foreboding for the future in a tender, brooding aria ("Il est trop tard") that ends Act 1.

Il est trop tard …
Je n'ai pu prévenir le sacrilege!
Les dieux ne m'écoutent plus, quelle est donc mon offense?
La place est déserte comme un ravage où la vague soudaine a passé …
Les hommes éprouvent le tranchant des épées.
Et les femmes au fond des chambers se lamentent.
Le premier meurtre est accompli,
L'orage se déchaîne.
J'avais livré ma vie à mon maître, et son désir était ma pensée.
O dieux, je n'ai qu'une prière: Ne me séparez pas de lui.
Accordez-moi plutôt la mort.
Vivre ou mourir auprès du maître est un égal Bonheur.

It is too late …
I could no longer prevent the sacrilege!
The gods no longer listen to me, what then is my wrongdoing?
This landscape is as deserted as a shore over which a sudden wave had swept …
The men feel the keen edge of the sword.
And the women lament deep inside their chambers.
The first murder is accomplished.
The storm breaks out.
I have delivered my life to my master, thinking only of his wishes.
O gods, I have only one prayer: Do not separate me from him.
Grant death to me instead.
To live or die near the master brings equal happiness.

Act 2, set in the Temple of Siva, opens with an ominous Prélude of growing intensity. Ratan-Sen, who has been wounded trying to defend the city, begs Padmâvatî to deliver herself and save her people. Enraged at the suggestion, she stabs and kills him; she would rather die than give in to the Sultan. As Ratan-Sen's funeral-pyre is prepared, there is opportunity for more ballet. In the torchy Danse et Pantomime a female dancer named Kali holds a trident while another, Dourga, does a snake-like dance; they move in languid circles around Padmâvatî, who finally casts them aside and enters the fire. In the final scene (Trés animé), Aladdin appears victorious at the Temple threshold, but gazes in horror as the funeral pyre consumes not just the King but his beloved Padmâvatî as well.