Albert Roussel and the Temple of Doom-Oops! I Mean Roussel's "Padmavati"-Is a Beautiful and Savage Dream

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Lovers of French opera don’t have to study learned tomes to find out about distant or exotic locales and ancient history. We take our ease sure in the knowledge that we got it all covered simply by listening to Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete, Les Hugenots, and L’Africaine, Massanet’s Esclarmonde, Herodiade, and Thais, Lalo’s Le Roi D’Ys, Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe Bleu, and today’s subject, Albert Roussel’s Padmavati, (completed shortly after WW1).

If you’ve been wasting your time hitting the books for the straight dope on the Anabaptists, Vasco de Gama, religious massacres, Medieval chivalry, the Bible, early christian Alexandria, and 14th century India, I’ve got three words of advice for you: Wise up, Toots! 

By the way, I also consider myself a Mayan expert because I saw Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”. 

Roussel’s opera simultaneously belongs to several traditions; firstly, being almost half ballet, it recalls Lully, but also, and more pertinently if less Frenchly, Rimsky-Korsakov’s underrated Mlada and Puccini’s Le Villi.  This opera is also squarely in the Orientalism traditon, and really, there are enough generations and enough works to justify the word “tradition”-R.-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Tsar Saltan, Strauss’s Salome and Stravinsky’s Nightengale come to mind. Debussy comes to mind, just in general. I mean come on, “Pagodas”, “Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Night Air” (that could be a description of Padmavati) and “The Moon Shines on a Ruined Temple”, for instance, et al. And the piece has all sorts of anticipations of Puccini’s Turandot, although I don’t imagine the illustrious Luccan knew the piece, which is a sort of missing link between Strauss’s Salome and Puccini’s Turandot, less hysterical and subtler than the Strauss, and also less hysterical and subtler than the Puccini. And probably less hysterical and subtler than lots of other things. The end of act 1 recalls King Dodon and R-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel.

“A beautiful and savage dream” is not intended as bloggin’ boilerplate: the piece inhabits a dreamlike trance from beginning to end, and oh, is it beautiful. As beautiful as any of Ravel’s exoticisms, and less fussy, to boot, and it’s as violent as, well, “Apocalyto”, or at least “Temple of Doom”-it doesn’t have High Priest of Thugee Muhleram tearing out victim’s hearts while invoking the power of Siva , but darn close.

[Mulleram - note the spelling— invokes the power of Kali, you pompous ignoramus. —Editor’s note.]

Is the piece moving? Yes, in two spots.  Padmavati’s despair and resignation at the end of act 1, lamenting that the Gods no longer hear her, and what did she do to deserve this? And, the duet in act 2 where Padmavati (and she decides for her Maharaja,as well)  determines to die with honor rather than to live with dishonor (by giving Padmavati to the Mogol chieftain). This isn’t Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba, it’s much better. It’s not Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, either. In fact, it had nothing to do with Sheba, why did I bring this up? Maybe confused Siva with Sheba.

To those who find faux-Oriental pieces like this insensitive, or jingoistic, or patronizing, I assure you, that although it looks like I’m delightedly lapping it up and asking for seconds on the outside, I’m remorsefully cryin’ on the inside, where it counts. Really.