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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
op. 18 Ė opera in two acts (1913-1918)
Marilyn Horne Ė Padm‚vatÓ
Nicolai Gedda Ė Ratan-Sen
Josť van Dam Ė Alaouddin
Jane Berbiť Ė Nakamti
Charles Burles Ė Brahmin
Marc Vento Ė Gora
Laurence Dale Ė Badal
Thierry Dran Ė Watchman
Jean-Jacques Cubaynes Ė Priest
Martine Mahť, Elena Perez Ė Palace attendants
Henri Amiel Ė Warrior
Hugues Brambilla Ė Merchant
Gťrard Blatt Ė Craftsman
Isabel Alvarez, Marian Etxeberria, Hermina Laborde Ė Women
Orfeůn Donostiarra/Antxůn AyestarŠn
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. 17-19 November 1982, 1-3 July 1983; Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France
EMI CLASSICS 3 81867 2 [53:15 + 49:58]


Padm‚vatÓ is part of EMIís mid-price Opera Series. At first glance that series doesnít look too promising, with the possible exception of the Callas Gioconda and Karajanís Aida, but in this case EMI has no competition as Rousselís opera-ballet isnít easily available elsewhere (there is a live London Coliseum recording under Jean Martinon from July 1969 on Gala GL100573). Also it has the apparent advantage of a very strong cast. So far so good, but is this operatic oddity really worth reviving?

The work has an interesting history. Rousselís ballet The Spiderís Banquet had been a great success at the Thť‚tre des Arts in Paris so its director Jacques Rouchť, appointed director of the Opťra in October 1913, asked him for a new lyric work. Roussel had visited India in 1909 and chose the Padm‚vatÓ story as the subject for his opera-ballet. He was working on it when the war intervened and completed the score in November 1918. Not surprisingly money for the arts was tight in the post-war years, so Padm‚vatÓ was only premiered on 1 June 1923.

The two-act opera-ballet to a libretto by Louis Laloy is set in the 13th-century Indian city of Chitoor, the home of Prince Ratan-Sen and his beautiful wife Padm‚vatÓ. The prince and Alaouddin, the Mogul ruler of Delhi whose army is camped outside the city, are about to conclude a peace treaty. Ratan-Sen entertains his guests with a warrior dance and a dance of slave girls, but it soon becomes clear Alaouddin is more interested in Padm‚vatÓ. The Brahmin assures the reluctant Ratan-Sen that his master has been converted to Hinduism so itís safe for him to see Padm‚vatÓ unveiled.

Alaouddin is captivated by Padm‚vatÓ and demands her for himself or the treaty will not be concluded. Ratan-Sen refuses and war looms. As Act I draws to a close the Brahmin is killed by the crowds and a fearful Padm‚vatÓ sings of her fears for the future.

In Act II Padm‚vatÓ and the priests are in the temple of Siva, where it soon becomes clear that sacrifices will be demanded. Ratan-Sen, wounded in battle, staggers into the temple with the news that all is lost. But, he says, they can all be saved if Padm‚vatÓ surrenders herself to Alaouddin. Overcome with horror Padm‚vatÓ stabs and kills her husband and rather than give herself to the Mogul king chooses to join Ratan-Sen on his funeral pyre.

As an opera-ballet Padm‚vatÓ is essentially a set of dances linked by short arias. These lavish set-pieces made a good impression on opening night and listening to the opera on disc one senses the visual element is crucial to its success. As for the music it is surprisingly austere, with the oriental effects sparingly used. The singers have no standout arias and the vocal style, though lyrical, inclines towards the declamatory. There is little of the febrile intensity of Pellťas, say, but the lush harmonies on the harp do look back to Debussy and earlier musical impressionists.

The prelude to Act I introduces a harmonic restlessness that pervades the whole opera. The first set-piece, the warrior dance, may suggest something of Stravinskyís Le Sacre du Printemps (premiered in 1913) but the dance of the slave girls is more in the vein of Borodinís Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The operaís first substantial aria is sung by the Brahmin (Charles Burles); he is suitably transported as he describes Padm‚vatÓís legendary beauty.

As the protagonists Gedda and van Dam sing well enough but neither role is particularly demanding vocally or in terms of characterisation; the same is true of Padm‚vatÓ who, like Turandot, only appears late in the day. She is not so much an ice queen as a latter-day Helen of Troy, whose beauty has tragic consequences for all. In her grim lament at the end of Act I she becomes something of a Cassandra figure, looking to the future with foreboding. It is hardly a taxing role for Horne but unfortunately her voice has a beat that is particularly noticeable under pressure.

Act II moves into night and the Temple of Siva. Again Roussel resorts to that unsettled mood that characterises much of Act I and peaks in a rare orchestral outburst as it becomes clear that sacrifices will be required. Ratan-Senís duet with Padm‚vatÓ, a few moments of calm in this all-enveloping nightmare, culminates in the prince's suggestion that she surrender herself to Alaouddin and save the city. Even at this moment of high dramatic tension Roussel's scoring remains curiously spare and unspectacular; indeed, one silently urges him on to something more uninhibited but that is not his way. In a defiant gesture Padm‚vatÓ stabs her husband and sets in train the events that lead to her own destruction.

At this point one begins to doubt whether Roussel is up to the dramatic demands of the story, so restrained is his musical temperament. Certainly the recessed recording doesn't help matters, with the chorus relegated to the very back of the soundstage. Even as Padm‚vatÓ prepares for death and the priests intone 'la mort' one simply misses the shiver that one should surely feel at this awful moment.

The ballet returns with a dance and pantomime as Ratan-Sen's pyre is lit and several figures emerge from the smoke in search of the body. Once again the oriental strangeness of this music is underplayed, although the choral writing Ė the daughters of Sivaís lament intertwined with the fervent prayers of the priests Ė is remarkably complex and rather moving. But even as the funeral procession winds to a climax and Padm‚vatÓ vanishes into the smoke Roussel continues to pull his punches. Alaouddin breaks into the temple but it is too late and the orchestral postlude resolves, quietly, into F major.

 As an opera-ballet Padm‚vatÓ clearly has plenty of visual potential but as a straight opera it fails to convince. There is very little in the way of character development and/or vocal distinction, with a single memorable aria in Act I and a rather underwhelming duet between Padm‚vatÓ† and her husband in Act II. There is precious little nobility, grandeur or pathos in this score and Roussel must shoulder some of the blame for that. Some must also be laid at Plassonís door, for the orchestral playing isnít particularly distinguished and the DDD recording is too backwardly balanced for the musicians and singers to make much of an impact.

 Oh, and one more thing. The booklet contains good notes and a cued synopsis by Roger Nichols but there is no libretto. Listeners are invited to download the text from but I Googled in vain. Finally I went on to the EMI Classics website and found the necessary PDF file, only to discover the libretto is in French only. Sorry EMI, but this just isn't good enough. Of course they are not alone in this self-defeating act of parsimony but it is a source of constant irritation when one has to go in search of texts. Admittedly it's much less of a problem with works one knows well but in this case, well, itís unforgivable really.

 A rather disappointing experience, this. And given that it is roughly contemporaneous with the likes of Wozzeck (1925) it seems Padm‚vatÓ is just a side street off the main highway of 20th-century opera. Worth a brief diversion, perhaps, but no more than that.

Dan Morgan





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