I attended on Friday night a performance at the Rome opera of La Leggenda di Sakùntala by Franco Alfano. I had never heard of this opera but was looking for a new experience. It was the opening performance, and there were a lot of empty seats.
The legend of Sakuntala is of Indian origin. A young woman descended from the gods but brought up by the leader of a Buddhist monastery is encountered by a king out hunting. After a brief seduction, he calls her his wife, gives her a ring and returns to his palace.
In an extremely trivial incident an unidentified person becomes angry and curses Sakuntala. Her father returns home and declares that Sakuntala is pregnant. He urges her to go tell the king, since he must be the father.
Sakuntala confronts the king in his palace, and he tells her that she is mad, that he has never seen her before. Apparently the curse affects him, too. She goes out and throws herself into a nearby river. A miraculous event occurs, she is consumed in fire, but her child is saved to become lord of the world.
This is obviously a perfect plot for an opera. The one that has been made of it is contemporary with Puccini's Turandot, and the music resembles the part of Turandot just before Calaf's aria "Nessun dorma." The difference between the two operas is that Puccini goes on to write a great aria and Alfano can only write a symphony with incidental singing.
The singers in Sakùntala are big voices of the verismo period, large enough to be heard over the huge orchestra with added humming chorus assembled around the sides of the stage. But alas, in opera it is the orchestra that is superfluous. Opera is about singing. It seemed a suitable piece to accompany a movie by Cecil B. DeMille, perhaps even a movie called The Legend of Sakuntala. Of the post-romantic genre I would have to say the music is quite good, but the voices are merely orchestrated into the texture and are not the center of attention they should be in an opera.
I am trying to explain the failure of this opera whose complete performance history since 1921 is included in the program. First in Bologna, once at La Scala, twice in Naples, three times in Rome and only once in Wexford, England, the only production noted outside Italy. The composer apparently transformed it into a symphony in the forties, but even the great Magda Olivera could not save it from obscurity.
The Rome opera did it good service. There was quite a lot of ballet which I thought was well woven into the drama, for a rare change. There was a lot of cute business with long bows without arrows. Before each act a man came out with a stand, followed by an actress who spoke, followed by the same man who took the stand back off the stage. She was not particularly popular. I have not been much to the opera in Italy, and this was my first experience of shouting and booing from the audience. They were telling her to get on with it. I had no idea what she was saying but sat patiently, yet another indication that I am not Italian. The singing was fine, especially Francesca Patane as Sakuntala and Elena Cassian.
Footnote. The resemblance to Turandot is apparently not coincidental--Franco Alfano is the guy who completed Turandot after Puccini's death. I was just doing my usual "what is this like" and hit right on it. Even I am amazed. He is also the composer of Cyrano de Bergerac.