“If my words could express my thoughts, they would be sweeter than the song of the nightingale,” sings Sultan Alauddin Khilji to Rana Ratan Sen. The words are in French, and they belong to Albert Roussel’s opera Padmavati, which was premiered at the Paris Opera on June 1, 1923.
In this early scene, Khilji has come to Chittor supposedly “without menace or arms” to propose a peace treaty with the kingdom of Mewar and become “the brother of their brothers, protector of their houses and avenger of their wrongs”, but the text and music bristle with dread. The king’s envoy, Badal, has seen the glitter of arms on the edge of the plain, and the river is dark with the moving forms of war elephants. “Treachery!” predicts the palace official Gora, and he runs to warn the king. In the courtyard, where Khilji makes his courtly compliments, Ratan Sen cuts across him: “I believe I hear the rumble of war in your speech.”
Padmavati is in all of its action an opera about sweetness and dread. As Khilji inadvertently suggests, its words are less than ideally elegant. Louis Laloy’s libretto is brief, as the work is an opéra-ballet with much time devoted to dance sequences. But the production’s highly-coloured Orientalist vision of medieval India and Hinduism frequently renders it comical to the twenty-first century ear. Its Chittor palace is a small museum of flowers, precious stones and tower rooms that “imprison the eternal shades of the forest” for the king’s enjoyment. His retinue can execute difficult dances in quintuple time to entertain visitors, the soldiers “bounding like tigers” and the women “turning like rose petals in the gale”.
Queen Padmavati herself, “the living image of the lotus in heaven”, is at one point accused of “breathing a perfume so sweet that a murmur of invisible bees surrounds her”.
When Khilji demands to see “sweet spectacles” and the “marvels of the city”, these living and inanimate sights are what he is offered. They are offered in turn to a Western audience as the marvellous but false spectacle of India that always screens treachery and the threat of war.
Roussel accomplishes his effects in music of considerable range and colour. The vocal writing is largely thorough-composed, moving between recitative (sung dialogue) and solo arias without very clear demarcations. But the orchestral score is characterised by quick and sometimes violent transitions between keys, themes and time signatures.
Padmavati is at its most classically harmonious in the music of reflection, as in the scene of the defeated Padmavati wishing for death. In scenes of prayer and invocation, the opera attempts a generalised late-Romantic pastiche of Indian music. Its massive-sounding choruses of townspeople, soldiers, dancers and priests are staple figures of 19th-century grand opera.
However, in its belated use of the opéra-ballet form of the 17th and 18th centuries, its fondness for quintuple and septuple meters (rhythms in fives and sevens), and its willingness to experiment (if mildly) with tonality, Padmavati is, like many works of the 1920s, indebted to the Neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky.
Events in the plot are framed by failed, fanciful Hindu ceremony. At the outset, a chorus of sopranos offers flowers to Ganesha and prays for peace, and Khilji and Ratan Sen plan a ritual of alliance. By the end all prayers have failed, a desperate Ratan Sen has attempted to give his wife away to the sultan in exchange for a truce, and Padmavati has stabbed him to death to spare herself this fate. Her priests summon first the “pale daughters of Siva” Parvati, Gauri, Prithvi and Uma and then the “dark daughters” Kali and Durga to lead the queen to her death by force.
“Agile Kali” and “serpentine Durga” dance an “undulating dance” during which they try in vain to drag Padmavati into the fire. After a rough-and-tumble pantomime, in which the goddesses seize her by the flanks and she trips and topples them, Padmavati at last ascends the pyre of her own free will. At this point she has perhaps very little tragic dignity left to recover.
Oddly, the source for Laloy’s somewhat confused libretto appears to be an opinionated but scholarly book by Théodore Marie Pavie about three Padmavati poems, The Legend of Padmanî, Queen of Chittor, based on Hindi and Hindavi texts (1856). Pavie provides manuscript details, summaries, translations, and linguistic and ethnographic notes in turn for Jatmal Nahar’s 1620s Gora Badal ri Katha, the Sanskrit Padmavaticharitra of the 1460s and Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 1540s Padmavat.
Pavie also writes of the sonorous delicacy of Sanskrit, the rough vigour of medieval Hindis, the “crude and ugly” Awadhi of Jayasi, and the Nagari script’s “disfigurement” of Persian and Arabic words. While such casual judgements would not pass muster today, this exhaustive piece of research reminds us that it would not have been difficult, in 1923, for Roussel and Laloy to hew closer to their source material. Their conscious decision to do otherwise has produced one of the strangest additions to the canon of the Padmavati legend.