Indian opera goes to Italy

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 29.06.08

London, June 28: Movie director Sanjay Leela Bhansali from Mumbai and choreographer Tanusree Shankar from Calcutta were last night given the unique honour of opening the 51st edition of the prestigious cultural festival that takes place every year in the picturesque Italian town of Spoleto with Padmavati, the French opera that took Paris by storm in March.

Stretching the sleep from his bones in the late morning, the normally demanding Bhansali told The Telegraph today that “I am beginning to feel much more relaxed and comfortable with life”, while Tanusree, who has brought the same dance troupe that went looking for ilish maach in Paris (you can always rely on the Bengalis to concentrate on the really important things in life), said that the whole experience was “so beautiful” and the response “absolutely mind blowing”.

Bhansali, who returns to Mumbai to a new film script he is writing, said while the opera was the same as in Paris, the difference lay in adapting the production to an audience in a new venue. He had also wondered whether “the Italians would have a different way of looking at the opera”.

“This Italian experience has been wonderful, so much in the style of (Frederico) Fellini,” said the maker of Devdas and Saawariya, referring to the Italian film director famed for 8 1/2.

The ethereal hilly beauty of Spoleto had engendered a new peace in him, Bhansali confided. “I am much more relaxed dealing with actors, with people. I am much more focussed on watching my actors.”

Incidentally, the Indians have discovered a Punjabi-dhaba style Indian restaurant in Spoleto where the owner has been sustaining the artists with plentiful supplies of roti and kebab so that they can do justice to the culture of Mother India.

Judging from the audience reaction, the opera, composed between 1914 and 1919 by Albert Rousell after the Frenchman had gone on honeymoon to Rajasthan and was inspired by the 14th tale of Rani Padmini and the hundreds of women who jumped into a fire rather than be taken alive by Alauddin Khilji, was as much of a success in Spoleto last night as it had been in Paris.

After watching Padmavati in Spoleto’s 700-seat Teatro Nuovo, more intimate than the grand 2,500-seat Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, Sergio Colomba, a reviewer from QN, a national Italian newspaper, said to The Telegraph: “It was very good, there were a lot of people there last night. The opera was very nice, full of colour, something very different for Italians.”

The Italian s know as much about opera as the French, but what made Padmavati both “different” and “special” was the Indo-French collaboration with the influence of what the Europeans consider “Bollywood” — although Bhansali had made a conscious decision not to make it traditional Bollywood, while Tanusree’s dance troupe from Calcutta has sought to stick with the classical traditions of Uday Shankar.

For Europeans, though, anything colourful or “exotic” from India is immediately classified as “Bollywood”.

Colomba added: “It was very Bollywood but it was not silly. The quality of the work, all the production, was very professional.”

The choir came from the Theatre du Chatelet, the orchestra was the renowned Czech National Symphony Orchestra of Prague and the singers and actors were provided by the Italians.

The conductor was Emmanuel Villaume, while the cast included Nicole Piccolomini (Padmavati), Giorgio Surian (Alauddin), and John Bellemer (Ratansen).

Apart from Bhansali and Tanusree, the Indian batting order, as in Paris, included some considered the best in their business — Omung Kumar Bhandula (set design); Rajesh Pratap Singh (costume design) and Somak Mukherjee (lighting design).

Baby, the elephant which appeared in Paris and has now been adopted by the Indians as part of their extended family, has reappeared in Spoleto and enjoyed the applause as much as anyone involved in the production. It has been the centre of attraction as it has been climbing the hill in Spoleto on its way from its “green room” to rehearsals.

“Baby recognised us and greeted us warmly,” informed Tanusree.

Whether the Indian government will give Baby a visa if Padmavati is performed at Ambar Palace in Rajasthan — some thought is being given to this prospect — or insist on local recruitment, remains to be seen.

The tiger is from a local circus and much bigger than the one in Paris. “It has such a powerful gaze, it sent shivers down my spine,” confessed darpok Bhansali.

There was a plan in Paris to introduce a python, too, but that idea was killed off after the snake developed a crush (a little too literally) for one of Tanusree’s dancers.

The review which has appeared today in the New York Times, headlined, “Bollywood Flavours Opening of Spoleto”, began: “Felliniesque is an overused term, but not here.”

The writer, Daniel J Wakin, a classical music reporter for his paper, said: “The Spoleto festival began its 51st season with a splashy Bollywood-style production.”

He added: “The show is rife with flower-petal flinging, the drawing of swords, smoky effects, colorful gold-trimmed costumes and red lighting to depict the flow of blood.”

Villaume, the conductor who is a native of France, told the paper that “the Orientalism of the Padmavati score was legitimised by the presence of the Indian artists. ‘You have the real visual flavors of India,’ he said. Among those flavors were the extraordinarily vivid expressions on the faces of the dancers, whose movements combined Western, Indian classical and traditional Bengali styles.”

There will be a second and final performance of Padmavati on Sunday night.