About this work
This opera, which Massenet had begun in 1872, possibly earlier, premiered with all the trappings that today might be reserved for the opening of a Broadway spectacular: a huge fortune spent on the production, especially the costumes, and an audience filled with dignitaries and celebrities. It was a huge financial and critical success at its debut at the Palais Garnier, and when the influential publisher Ricordi championed it abroad, it brought Massenet immediate international fame, especially in Italy (where Giuseppe Verdi was somewhat put out by its rapturous reception).
It followed the current taste for the exotic, the same vogue that produced Delibes' Lakmé (1883), Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863), Verdi's Aida (1872), and many of Massenet's later works, including Esclarmonde, Thais, and Cleopatre. It is, not surprisingly, full of grand spectacles and rather Meyerbeer-like ensembles, such as the scene in which Sita is made to entrap her lover and the scene in which the king, transformed into a beggar, confronts the usurper Scindia. (The last scene as well owes a debt to Aida, with the dying lovers' soaring ecstasy contrasting with the broken exclamations of their remorse-wracked nemesis.) Though it owed a clear debt to the past, it also had several modernistic touches, including the use of the saxophone (Massenet used it in later operas as well, taking advantage of its sensual sound). The scene in Paradise, in which Alim asks Indra to be allowed to return to earth, was another dramatic and musical novelty, one that found an echo in the prologue to Boito's Mefistofele. There are hints of Wagnerism in some of the thicker orchestral textures, but despite that, and even moments of discord, the overall thrust is lyrical. As with most of Massenet's operas, it fell out of favor after World War I, though it was (like Esclarmonde) successfully revived for Joan Sutherland in the 1970s.