Santuzza in Stilettos, Canio on TV

IndiaIndia Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana & Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci: Soloists, Symphony Orchestra of India, Members of the Kazakh State Philharmonic Capella, The Paranjoti Academy Chorus, Living Voices, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble, Antonello Allemandi, Zane Dalal (conductors), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 18 & 21.2.2012 (JSM)


Co-production of Teatro Argentino and Teatro Solis de Montevideo

Direction: Willy Landin
Sets: Juan Carlos Greco (Cav), Juan Carlos Greco & Willy Landin (Pag)
Costumes: Nidia Ponce
Lighting: Juan Carlos Greco


Cavalleria rusticana
Santuzza: Elena Bocharova / Chiara Angella
Turiddu: Giancarlo Monsalve / Mickael Spadaccini
Alfio: Gevorg Hakobyan
Lola: Marianna Vinci
Mamma Lucia: Chiara Fracasso

I Pagliacci
Canio: Francesco Anile
Nedda: Sabina Cvilak
Tonio: Silvio Zanon
Silvio: Javier Arrey
Beppe: Filippo Adami

Picture courtesy National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

Opera in Mumbai used to be a rare phenomenon occurring once in a very great while. However, thanks to the opera-centric management at the city’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and its world-class orchestra-in-residence, the Symphony Orchestra of India, it is now relatively frequent, with new productions being staged for limited runs every two years or so.

Since Mumbai lacks an opera company, productions are imported in varying degrees and this latest offering of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci came from South America, complete with sets. As such, it minimized the Indian contribution to a few members of the orchestra (most of whom are, again, “imported”), some choristers and extras. It had a run of three performances. This reviewer caught the first and the last.

Opening-night was fraught with problems. For one thing, the interval lasted 75 minutes, owing to the elaborate set-change. The truth is, the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre has limited space around the stage so large sets cannot be wheeled on and off. They have to be struck and mounted in situ. The subsequent performances saw a progressive reduction in this inordinate delay, down to about 50 minutes.

available at Amazon
Mascagni & Leoncavallo, Cav/Pag,
Gavazzeni, Patané / Pavarotti, Freni, Varady…

In Cavalleria, mezzo-soprano Elena Bocharova as Santuzza was apparently unwell on opening night and decided not to attempt any high notes after the Easter Hymn, singing them an octave lower. Wearing what looked like diamond ear-studs, a pearl or coral necklace and a pair of bright and shiny patent-leather stilettos, it seemed as though a member of the audience had lost her way onto the stage. There was nothing in her performance that conveyed more than cursory emotional involvement with the predicament of this supposedly poor, simple village-girl.

Her Turiddu was slightly better. Giancarlo Monsalve had the looks and physical presence but his vocalism was heavy-handed, needing a “leg-up” to reach the high notes. His tone had an ill-focused spread. Even so, he managed a surprisingly proficient account of his final “Addio alla Madre.

The others saved the day. Gevorg Hakobyan’s Alfio was alpha-male with his swagger and robust tone, though somewhat cavalier with note-values during “Il cavallo scalpita.“Marianna Vinci was spot-on as Lola, though clotted below the stave and Chiara Fracasso gave probably the finest performance in the cast as Mamma Lucia, note-perfect in a finely-shaded, idiomatic characterization.

Ms Bocharova was replaced after opening-night by soprano Chiara Angella who had no problems with the role’s high tessitura and wore much more sensible footwear. She did, however, have a wide and pronounced vibrato. Even so, her sheer involvement and innate musicality paid immense dividends during “Voi lo sapete” and the duet with Turiddu, ending in a hair-raising “Bada!” and curse.

Mickael Spadaccini sang Turiddu on the last night and his interpretation was “softer” than the animal-like quality of Monsalve. His vocalism followed suit with sensitive phrasing, though not always perfectly-rounded in tone.

In Pagliacci, tenor Francesco Anile proved himself to be very much a singer’s singer, allowing the pathos and passion in the music to express itself (à la Björling) without resorting to bathetic boo-hooing or savage shouting. Possessing a relatively small but evenly-produced voice, his high notes were laser-sharp, cutting through orchestral tutti with ease. As an actor, he erred on the side of economy, conveying Canio’s extremis simply but effectively. However, the final stabbing of Nedda and Silvio could have been much more crazed and vicious: here it barely registered on the audience.

Sabina Cvilak, as Nedda, was secure and powerful above the stave and threw herself into her part with convincing abandon. Although she was occasionally inaudible in the lower passaggio (but with strong chest-notes) her musicality was unimpeachable. Her ravishing pianissimi in her duet with Silvio, was matched by baritone Javier Arrey ‘s superbly lyrical and moving rendition of his brief solo.

Silvio Zanon’s harder, gleaming baritone suited Tonio perfectly. Though slightly strained by the Prologue’s top notes, he gave a vivid musico-dramatic characterisation of the hunchback, reaching its peak in the fiery exchange with Nedda. In contrast, he showed a real flair for comedy during the antics of Scene 2, in which Filippo Adami sang Beppe’s little solo in full voice with insouciant ease, moving with great agility.

If Cav and Pag are said to be twins, they could hardly be more dissimilar than in this production. Here, Cavalleria was played on an exquisitely-detailed set of a Sicilian village-piazza, beautiful but shrouded in a near-perpetual twilight through which the Sicilian sun shone only intermittently. Pagliacci, interestingly, was set in a TV studio from the early 60s, with professional cameras “shooting” the action in black and white, displayed on a screen at the back. A large neon-sign announced “23 ORE” as the title of the show in which Canio’s troupe was slated to perform and the chorus became the studio-audience. The show itself, in Scene 2 of the opera, was a circus-style extravaganza complete with acrobats, while the preceding intimate scenes were performed “off-camera” in a dressing-room and the empty studio.

Picture courtesy National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

Director Willy Landin’s imagination had obviously run riot, offering a thoroughly riveting “modern” mise-en-scène of Pagliacci, albeit with a few minor inconsistencies. It was difficult to accept that the same director was responsible for the somewhat four-square Cavalleriaearlier that evening!

Landin’s forte was the interaction between principal characters, brilliantly realized in both operas, especially Pagliacci in its switching back-and-forth between reality and Commedia dell’Arte. The chorus was given little attention in Cavalleria. They were made to walk around in slow-motion or strike stilted poses in groups without much sense of “character” or involvement. (Where were their wine-glasses during the Brindisi?) In Pagliacci, however, they remained happily seated until called-upon to react, in time to the music.

This amalgamation of choirs, though satisfyingly full-voiced, lacked the agility of a true operatic chorus, being somewhat sluggish in its response to the dynamics of music-drama; and unable to adapt to sudden changes in tempo. As a result, under both conductors, there were major imprecisions between the ensemble and the orchestra.

Antonello Allemandi conducted opening-night con brio….to a fault. The orchestra was king, playing with full-blooded attack and burnished tone. The conductor seemed to revel in the amplitude of its sound at the expense of those singers who were unable to cut through it. His tempi were generally fast, making for a thrilling listen but also the occasional “Runaway Train,” when singers were unable to keep up.

Resident-maestro Zane Dalal was, on the other hand, more responsive to the lyricism in both scores, keeping passion in its place. From the very first, meltingly-beautiful notes of the Prelude to Cavalleria, it was clear this was going to be an utterly musical, elegant reading of the operas. He conducted with a firm, clear downbeat, in sync with variations in rhythm (for example, the heady swirl of Nedda’s “Balatella”) and highlighted inner voices with tender clarity. Climaxes, when they occurred, had requisite weight and volume, if not quite the visceral slam conjured by Maestro Allemandi.

The semi-covered pit of the JBT was perhaps responsible for amplifying the orchestral sound to a point where only the most securely-produced voices were able to ride it successfully. This was evident at three differently-located seats, in an auditorium notorious for its unpredictable acoustics.

This, along with technical limitations and logistical problems, makes staging opera a difficult proposition in this city. Mumbai’s NCPA has a few more lessons to learn; but, with experience and international support, it might well become a major operatic centre in this part of the world.

Jiten S. Merchant

For a second opinion see: Raising a Glass to Opera Making Inroads into Mumbai