Monday, May 12, 2008

Alfano: Long Lost Sakuntala - At Last!

Some nights ago I pulled out a treasure of fairly recent discovery – a work I’d long known of, but recordings of which seemed impossible to find until several years ago when a live one – the only one I’m aware of, came my way: Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting Alfano’s “Sakuntala.”

There is, as one might expect from any “lesser” composer of the time, much influence of Debussy and Strauss throughout the score. To that end it is almost not quite “Italian” sounding. Quite simply, Alfano’s instrumentation and use of color is nothing less than remarkable and gorgeous - exotic. I had often read that Puccini himself had been influenced by the younger composer and that the writing we find so captivating in Turandot (and rather different from most of Puccini’s other work) came from his having read Alfano’s score. Finally getting a listen-to of Sakuntala, one can definitely hear where Puccini got some of his Turandot ideas.

Interestingly, part of the long first act duet between the King and Sakuntala is strongly reminiscent of what Alfano would write in Turandot’s finale – a finale that used Puccini’s own musical shorthand – already “borrowed” from Alfano! This first act duet between the lovers, more than do most other Italian operatic duets, approaches a near Tristan length and Alfano never seems to run out of ideas. Stunning is not too strong a word to describe it.

Later, there’s a moment - toward the beginning of Act II – which sounds like the font from which Philip Glass seems to drunk to have gotten some of his best ideas.

In the second act our heroine is given an enormous aria – a 10 minutes voice buster which (almost literally) breathtakingly segues into the next scene. This is a truly huge sing for the soprano.

Alfano’s vocal writing here turns seems to turn away from Italian tradition and is far different than what we get from Puccini in this same period. Alfano seems more here by Wagner than does Puccini. Phrases are much longer with a sort of pseudo- Wagnerian- parlando, yet without sounding particularly Wagnerian. It’s really lovely – and rather original.

A dance/ballet opens the final act that strongly recall’s Strauss. This is not particularly great music, but (like Strauss’s Veil Dance) atmospheric and never less than enjoyable. That is no small compliment in and of itself. In all likelihood, the dance stands a better chance of being performed than the rest of this beautiful work.

In many respects I find a musical/spiritual connection between this work and Enescu’s Oedipe and those who have recently discovered the joys of that other obscure opera are certain to find plenty to enjoy here.

This recording was taken from a 1979 performance. The principal roles are sung by:

Sakuntala - Celestina Casapietra
The King - Michele Molese
Kanva - Aurio Tomicich

with the RAI Symphony and Chorus conducted by Ottavio Ziino.

Ms. Casapietra was entirely unknown to me. While I would have liked a juicier, firmer voice she does manage the difficult high music quite well and sings with a great (impressive actually) amount of emotion, such that one senses she really “feels” this music. The lower voice can be a bit shaky (actually, fairly often) with a hollow quality that is never particularly lovely. The third act goes much better for her, the top notes opening up in a way they hadn’t earlier and the effect is (save for one squally High C – ironically on the word “Orror!”) and her singing here turns quite thrilling, her commitment paying off and that in and of itself is an important thing in getting this work to come across to those unfamiliar with this work. (which is pretty much everyone).

New York City Opera stalwart, Michele Molese starts off just a wee bit thin, but within minutes the voice takes on a rich bloom and his sound - past the passagio - is generally thrilling. Like Casapietra he sings the music with conviction, the pair of them almost
seeming to get carried completely away by Alfano’s sumptuous outpourings.

The final scene looks so forward to the final bars composed for Turandot that there simply can be no doubt left as to who’s ideas closed that opera.

Though the sound is not flawless (there appears to be some bleed through in spots which I’m guessing stem from the original tape source) it is more than good enough to convey the sense of wonder Alfano infuses through so much of this strange and beautiful work.

I really couldn’t be more pleased with this release.

Bravo, Alfano!


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