When the elephant-headed god Ganesh is flown in near the beginning of Albert Roussel's Hindu opera-ballet Padmâvatî, followed not long after by an elephant bearing the lustful sultan, Alaouddin, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in for a night at the circus. For conductor Lawrence Foster, the greatest challenge to his authority came from Otello the horse, who stamped his hoof insistently off the beat. A tiger cub made a brief appearance, but the python had thrown a hissy fit, to the alarm of the dancer around whose neck it was coiled, and was quietly laid off.
If the Théâtre du Châtelet was hoping for a spectacle on a scale seldom seen these days, this work – staged only once since its Paris premiere in 1923 – offered endless potential. Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, making his first foray into opera, obliged with a flamboyant production attentive to authentic detail.
The costumes were by Rajesh Pratap Singh, while a couple of dozen dancers from Calcutta provided the lavish court entertainment and balletic sequences.
Following his travels in India, Roussel drew on the true story of Padmâvatî, the 13th-century Queen of Chitor (now Chittaurgarh), who chooses death over dishonour. Instead of surrendering herself to Alaouddin's invading army she kills her own husband, so that she may immolate herself on his funeral pyre. Casting such a figure, the Châtelet clearly opted for experience over looks in the mezzo-soprano Sylvie Brunet. Both she, and the veteran baritone Alain Fondary as Alaouddin, showed resourcefulness in covering the rough patches in their demanding roles. The tenor Yann Beuron, killed off early on, dominated as the Brahmin. With little opportunity for character development, however, the singers were reduced to little more than puppets while the exotic dancing not only put them in the shade but concealed the scantiness of the plot, never mind the subtleties of Roussel's remarkable score.
The real heroes of the evening were the splendid chorus of the Châtelet (trained by Stephen Betteridge) and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, from whom Foster conjured Roussel's striking soundworld.
It seems that we've not heard the last of Bhansali's extravagant take on Padmâvatî. There's talk of this production travelling to Italy later this year, and Bhansali is considering staging it at the actual Chittaurgarh fortess in Rajasthan, as well as a film. I hope the python can be uncoiled for that.