Monday, March 4, 2013

Alfan's "Sakuntala" Finally

(From my review previously posted February/2006)

For years I’ve heard snippets (some long, some not so) of the work, and looked for a complete recording in vain. No more.

There is so much Debussy and Strauss influence in the score it’s almost not “Italian” sounding! Quite simply, Alfano’s instrumentation and use of color is nothing less than remarkable and gorgeous - exotic. One definitely can hear where Puccini got some of his ideas for Turandot here. (Similarly, part of the long first act duet between the King and
Sakuntala is strongly reminiscent of what Alfano would do in Turandot’s finale). That first act duet between the lovers is nearly Tristan length and Alfano never seems to run out of ideas.

There’s a moment or two toward the beginning of Act II which sounds like where Philip Glass seems to have gotten his best ideas, as well!

In the second act Sakuntala has an enormous, 9 minute voice busting aria that is just breathtaking as it segues into the next scene. Holy Moley, this is a BIG sing.

Alfano’s vocal writing here is far different than Puccini’s - longer phrases, more Wagnerian-style parlando (but not Wagnerian sounding - at all).

A dance/ballet opens the final act that (very) strongly recall’s Strauss.

(Side note: I believe those who’ve enjoyed Enescu’s Oedipe will find much to enjoy here.)

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

Sakuntala - Celestina Casapietra
The King - Michele Molese (anyone remember him from City Opera?!)
Kanva - Aurio Tomicich
with the RAI Symphony and Chorus conducted by Ottavio Ziino.

Casapietra is unknown to me. I would have liked a juicier, firmer voice but she handles the difficult high music quite well and sings with a lot of feeling. The lower voice can be a bit shaky (often) with a hollow quality that isn’t particularly lovely. The third act goes much better for her with the top notes opening up in a way they hadn’t earlier and that is quite thrilling (except for one squally high C, unfortunately on the word “orror!). Again, her commitment shows and that’s an important thing in this work.

Molese starts off just a wee bit thin, but within minutes the voice takes on a rich bloom and his voice past the passagio is often thrilling. Like Casapietra he sings the music with conviction and the two of them almost seem to get carried away by Alfano’s sumptuous outpourings.

The final scene looks so much to the final bars to what he composed for Turandot that no doubt can be left 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 much of the work.

I really couldn’t be more pleased to have discovered this, and as ever: Bravo, Alfano!

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THC's Wretched "The Bible"

What a dreadful, awful thing this is. I couldn't believe the amount of money spent on this. It was produced by Surivor creator Mark Burnett and his wife, the wretched Roma Downey who plays (terribly) her dream role: Mary the Mother of Jesus. The entire thing is hunk of junk.

Oddly enough it begins with Noah and his family in their enormous, but awfully leaky ark, filled to capacity with lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), as the wizened old geezer recites the creation story as they violently toss and turn in this ship of fools. Perhaps in an effort to not to upset "non-believers" the entirety of Creation is passed over in roughly 90 seconds, including the creation of Adam and Eve, their downfall, and Cain killing Able. It makes a Reader's Digest condensed book feel like Proust or Joyce. And, to quote the Carpenter siblings, "we've only just begun."

The entire cast appears to have been culled from the British Isles, even though this is an American made production. The accents are not uniform and appear to have been gathered from all over England's realm. Moses, for instance, has such a heavy Scottish brogue he could replace Groundskeeper Willie from "The Simpsons." The children, every one of them towheaded or sandy haired moppets and each sounding like a reject from a casting call for the "Oliver." I'm not kidding. This became noticeably glaring as Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac, and the lad asks, "Fatha, Oye see the sticks, but whaz thee lamb?" He might as well have said, "'Owdy govnuh, cheerio 'n all that, innit?"

Not to bring racism into the multiple issues I had with this, but the producers found a way to make my blood boil even further. I found it almost comically offensive how the principal "good" characters, e.g., Noah, Moses, Abraham, Miriam, et. al, are cast by very (very) white, actors with fair hair to match, while the only characters who remotely resemble the people of the region these stories occurred, are the bad guys, including Pharaoh, Hagar (with tattooed face) and Lot's wife. Don't get me started on what a miserable shrew they make her out to be).

Jesus makes an early appearance to warn about Sodom's upcoming destruction, and what an entrance the Lord and Savior makes in this film. This Jesus is a blonde, bad-ass who shows up with a pair of shit-kicking warrior angels, one Chinese the other African adding some serious Ninja-like violence to the story, which seems to have suddenly been crafted, at least for a few minutes, from a graphic novel.

In the long and pivotal role of Moses, they've cast an actor who is so absolutely, remarkably, unbelievably horrible his name is not in the credits and nowhere to be found on the internet. Not even IMDB lists him as part of the cast. Moses. Really? You went with this guy?

The script is abysmal and in no consistent style, veering off from a faux Shakespearean mess into some amalgamated wreck of "ancient speak" with modern English. There is also a heavy predisposition for everyone to over pronounce names like Aaron, and Isaac with an odd mingling of French and Middle Eastern accents. Weird? You betcha.

On the "plus" side, the settings look great, with, apparently, no expense being spared. The violence, of which there is plenty,, may not be right on the money but appropriately bloody, horrific and, in the case of ancient Egypt, continual. In fact, in Egypt I was left wondering how anything got done by these poor, half-starved, emaciated slaves who were being whipped not only nonstop but in some instances, literally to death,

It really is a dreadful, awful thing, but it did have me laughing in disbelief throughout. That's probably not what they were going for, but it counts for something. That's entertainment!

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