I have to admit I am not familiar with a good deal of Roussel's compositions and that 20th century French music is not really my thing. But as I said before I just couldn't let the opportunity to hear a much discussed but rarely performed work pass. Rarely performed because, though a brief 100 minutes, it demands a large orchestra, full chorus, corps de ballet, a conductor familiar with the French style, eleven soloists and, if it is to make its full effect, a level of production that most opera houses can't afford these days.
So how did the renewed Spoleto Festival do on those counts. To address the last requirement first - they imported the production lock, stock, 450 costumes, enormous sets and menagerie from the Théâtre du Châtelet. Staged by Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it was sumptuously costumed and set by Omung Kumar Bhandula and Rajesh Pratap Singh. Walls rose and fell, smoke billowed, candle lit processions lead by Elephant head gods wended their way through the audience and across the stage, flower petals fell and the heroine and her husband found their apotheosis in a sunlit sky. Was it over-the-top as a few critics have claimed? Damn right! But how else do you stage an opera-ballet of this nature? And it worked marvelously as theatre!
The Châtelet chorus, a major element in Roussel's writing, was nothing short of stupendous - whither wordless accompanying Padmavati's preperations for suttee, hymning Shiva or issuing war cries they were a major strength. The Prague National Symphony Orchestra played under the impassioned Emmanuel Villaume who drew all the drama out of Roussel's dense score while not quite avoiding some of the bombast. The dancers - a troupe of 20 from India - performed Tanusree Shankar's interesting mix of modern and traditional Indian dance movements faultlessly.
The lead singers were all new to the production and it seemed to me at a bit of a disadvantage. Not only where they competing with a grandiose production but given the brevity of the work there was no great opportunity for development. Alessia Nadin in her lovely brief introducion of Padmavati before she removes her veil and Philippe Do as the typically French high-tenor Brahmn showed to best advantage. John Bellemer's Ratan-sen was colourless both vocally and dramatically and Giorgio Surlan as Allouddin blustered effectively as I've seen him do on several occasions. It must have been hard to live up to that entrance on elephant back.
Though Padmâvatî is a brief role - 35 minutes of singing apparantly - it is an intense one. Nicole Piccolomini delivered all the required passion and intensity though I felt her finest moment was in the quiet lament that ended the first act. Hers is a voice more contralto than mezzo if perhaps lacking some of the velvet associated with that, now, rare type of voice. It was an impressive Italian debut and I'm looking forward to hearing more of her though it appears Berlin is home base for the moment.
And that menagerie I've been talking about for almost a week now? The horse brought on a rather nervous messenger to deliver news of the Sultan's advance; the elephant paraded in, knelt to deposit Alloudin in midstage, trumpeted and sauntered off; the tiger was paraded across the back of the stage as the suttee preparations began. None of it had much to do with the opera but it all added to the spectacle.
And I think that is the only way Padmâvatî can be enjoyed - as a spectacle musically, visually and dramatically. On those counts Spoleto had a winner. And Betty Jean got her elephant!
The obviously happy cast received at least 15 curtain calls from a responsive and pleased audience - count Betty Jean and I as part of that group.
Production photos by Marie-Noëlle Robert for Théâtre du Châtelet.
06 lulgio - Santa Maria Goretti