Roussel - Padmâvatî

Châtelet, Paris, Monday March 24 2008

Conductor: Lawrence Foster. Production: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Padmâvatî: Sylvie Brunet. Ratan-Sen: Finnur Bjarnason. Alaouddin: Alain Fondary. Le Brahmane: Yann Beuron. Badal: François Piolino. Nakamti: Blandine Folio Peres. Gora: Laurent Alvaro. La Sentinelle: Alain Gabriel. Sets: Omung Kumar Bhandula. Choreography: Tanusree Shankar. Costumes: Rajesh Pratap Singh. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Châtelet Chorus.

La Juive, L'Etoile, Véronique, Zampa, now Padmâvatî: the Paris houses suddenly seem determined to give us more of the rare French repertoire than we were used to, and there's more to come in next season's schedules.

Handing over opera productions to novices from the cinema is (as the FT critic pointed out) always a risky business. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the director of the famous Bollywood blockbuster-tearjerker Devdas, which we all have the DVD of, of course, and admits quite candidly that he knows nothing about opera and never expects to direct another. The result, in this case, got mixed reviews. There was a horse, an elephant and a young tiger tugging at its leash; there would have been a python as well, only it seems the latter got too excitable during rehearsals, and was dropped to play safe. None of these animals was present for long and none added anything other than anecdotal curiosity value (reminding me, once more, of the Met's unforgettably ridiculous Aïda).

The production, while apparently authentic as to rituals and symbols (as it should be), was not as spectacular as we might have expected. It wasn't quite Bollywood's glossy, OTT glamour brought to life on stage. It was much as if Disney (or, for that matter, the Met) had decided to do something Indian: the sets were traditional, painted ones: as a backdrop, clusters of oriental domes against a stormy sky; an Indian palace, its complicated baroque columns decorated with mirror mosaics and its arches picked out in lights; Ganesh on the curtain, Shiva, with a trident, on stage... Best of all were the lavish costumes, straight out of Indo-Persian miniatures: kings in giant turbans with jewelled egrets and long pleated skirts, laden with strings of pearls and glittering with coloured gems; the ladies of the chorus in pastel saris, bearing candles in lotus flowers; the dancers in vividly-coloured, Rajasthan gear: cyclamen and tangerine bordered with gold, black bodices with silver motifs and trims, elegant ankle bracelets for all. The ballets, though the dancers danced with great charm and the men with a degree of acrobatics, didn't quite have Bollywood's coordination; nor - no doubt because Roussel's score didn't allow it - were they quite such fun.

Overall, the sense I had was of a décalage, as the French say, a mis-match between the good- natured pictureque-ness of the staging and the more serious music and plot. Roussel is mostly not for me: his dense, clustery harmonies and rich scoring are too near to Debussy for my taste; the exoticism is at times a touch closer to trashiness than his ardent supporters would have it. But it's mostly highly competent stuff and does have its moments of drama, and this is where the mis-match was felt.

Also, I hesitate to say it but although Sylvie Brunet really throws herself into the acting with evident commitment, it doesn't work. She makes, unfortunately, an ungainly, matronly queen (but in at least three sumptuous costumes), more like one of the aunts in Devdas than the gorgeous heroine. A shame because she really does try, but the director gave her little help, leaving her to mime anguish, with one arm in the air, for a good quarter-hour at the end of the piece as she "burned up" while reclining on a rather unconvincing pyre (dry ice and red lights). Vocally, to me, she was fine: her voice is dark and grainy and complex with a fair amount of edge to it and, as I remarked when she sang (an equally matronly) Carmen, has an old-fashioned fast vibrato; some people don't like it at all.

Her Ratan-Sen was a pale (but elegant) presence beside her, even if the rumours of subtle miking (supposedly for him alone) were true. The singing star was really the ever-excellent Yann Beuron (here with his head shaved), though even he stumbled ever-so-slightly over some top notes. Alain Fondary sang remarkably well for a man of his age (wouldn't he be in his 70s now? Michel Sénéchal was, while we're on that subject, in the audience a few seats to my left and apparently enjoying it). Little François Piolino, barely recognisable and nearly comical in a huge curling moustache and vast turban, sounded exactly the same as usual, cf the DVD of Les Paladins.

The evening was enjoyable enough. I don't mind the odd traditional production from time to time, especially with costumes like these and no pretentions, and it was interesting to hear the piece. I don't have the old CDs, but, as I find Debussy positively grim listening (he always makes me think of wet Sundays in the suburbs), I don't think it's something I would personally want to listen to often at home.


  1. boo! Bias drippig like mucous from a tuberculoid in every sentance.

    People that dont like mixed / fusion productions should skip performances rather than invent reasons to dislike them.


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