OPERA NEWS - Sakùntala
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ALFANO: Sakùntala

DVD Button Dalla Benetta, Kravchenko, Kader; Ferrer, D’Agata, Fresta, La Delfa, Palmieri, Vargetto; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania, Bareza. Production: Gasparon. Bongiovanni AB 20037, 113 mins., subtitles

Recordings Sakuntala Cover HDL 918
Ferrer and Dalla Benetta in Catania
Courtesy Bongiovanni
Recordings Sakuntala Cover 918

IN FRANCO ALFANO'S Sakùntala,a curse foils a happy-ever-after future for the title heroine and the king she loves, who loses all memory of her and rejects her when, pregnant with their child, she travels to his palace for a reunion. In real life, Alfano and his exotic, erotic two hours of perfumed Orientalism were victims of a not dissimilar curse. Its name is Turandot, and the barrage of brickbats Alfano suffered—and still suffers—as the composer “honored” with the thankless task of completing Puccini’s swan song has long kept Sakùntala, his favorite musical offspring, from being embraced by a wider public. Inspired by an ancient Sanskrit play by the poet Kalidasa, with its multiple dramatic pre-echoes of works as diverse as Lakmé, Pelléas et Mélisande and Madama Butterfly, Alfano’s Leggenda di Sakùntala, a setting of his own text, enjoyed a notable success at its premiere, in Bologna in 1921 (conducted by Tullio Serafin). That was rapidly followed by excursions to Naples and Milan, a transatlantic voyage to Buenos Aires and, in 1924, translingual outings in Germany and Belgium. That same year, Puccini died, and Alfano—his reputation buoyed by his new opera—was offered, and accepted, his maledictory gig. Turandot had its premiere in 1926, and its fortunes waxed as La Leggenda di Sakùntala’swaned;after the headquarters of their publisher, Ricordi, was bombed during World War II, the full score of Alfano’s opera was presumed lost. Still, his affection for it never wavered, and his painstaking reconstruction, made from memory and a surviving piano/vocal score, was staged in Rome in 1952, under the shortened title Sakùntala. For the next five decades, it popped up sporadically, mostly in Italy. Then, in 2006, the 1922 score was discovered in the Ricordi archive and staged in Rome under its original title. Most revivals since then, though, have adhered to Alfano’s later version. 

Several performances, in both guises, are audible on YouTube, and every one I’ve heard has offered greater vocal pleasures than this one, captured at Catania’s Teatro Massimo Bellini in November 2016. I can’t fault Massimo Gasparon’s simple, boldly colored staging and designs—they help efficiently tell the static story—and Croatian conductor Nikša Bareza paces and colors the luminescent score surely and sensitively. But Silvia Dalla Benetta—in the title role, which demands a challenging combination of Turandot and Liù—sounds overbright and far from steady; her limited acting skills don’t earn her much sympathy, though she does seem to try. Her vocal glare is well-matched by her King of Spain, tenor Enrique Ferrer, who seldom concedes to dynamics subtler than full-out forte. But his leading-man looks and skilled, sensitive acting are advantageous. Basso Francesco Palmieri wobbles noisily as Kanva, Sakùntala’s prophetic adoptive father. As one of her two handmaidens, Bulgarian mezzo Kamelia Kader provides this production’s most enjoyable performance.  

Like the King reunited with the ring of remembrance, the opera public has lately rediscovered Alfano, with more frequent revivals of his evocatively painted Cyrano de Bergerac (1936); a brilliant staging of his early, equally atmospheric Risurrezione (1904) was the hit of Wexford in 2017. If Sakùntala awaits a comparable vindication, in the meantime the curious can explore this respectable Sicilian stopgap.  —Patrick Dillon

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