Raising a Glass to Opera Making Inroads into Mumbai

IndiaIndia Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana & Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci: Soloists, Symphonic Orchestra of India, Members of the Kazakh State Philharmonic Capella, The Paranjoti Academy Chorus, Living Voices, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble, Antonello Allemandi (conductor), National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 18.2.2012 (RoW)

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
Turiddu: Giancarlo Monsalve
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

Even during the British Raj, an era that brought Western classical music to urban India, opera was never as popular as symphonic or chamber music. And post-independence, opera faded into near-oblivion even in a city like Bombay (now Mumbai), with relatively few trained singers, the lack of a suitable orchestra, and an audience largely unaccustomed to the genre.

It’s only in recent years that opera has attempted to secure a cultural foothold in India’s most cosmopolitan city, thanks to the vision and efforts of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), supported by corporate sponsors who bankroll productions that even at their most modest are still hugely expensive to mount. Given that Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is the capital) imposes entertainment tax on the total number of available tickets for any Western (i.e. non-Indian) music performance regardless of how many are actually sold, it becomes all the more daunting to present performances on the scale that opera demands and break even. How very laudable then that the NCPA strives to produce an opera every 15 months or so, importing the singers and conductor from outside India and pooling local choral groups to form the chorus, accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of India or SOI (an accomplished group of mostly Kazakh and some Indian players who come together just twice a year).

Against this challenging backdrop, Mumbai was recently treated to the ubiquitous double bill of Italian Opera, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (a.k.a. Cav & Pag) in the NCPA’s most ambitious and reportedly most expensive production to date. In the words of NCPA Chairman Khushroo Suntook, himself an opera afficionado, this was “truly a multinational venture, with sets, costumes, direction and stage management from South America, singers from all over the globe, a largely Indian chorus, and proudly our own orchestra in the pit.” A source familiar with the production who spoke on condition of anonymity says the NCPA spent some 60 million rupees (approximately US$ 1.2 million) to bring these verismo warhorses to near full houses over three nights at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre.

Was this investment worth it in purely musical and artistic terms? Well, (like a Tosca of two years ago) on the whole, yes—but not consistently. “Cav & Pag” are not particularly subtle, underpinned as they are by stories of love, lust, treachery, jealousy and death. Cav perhaps has the more hummable score, including its ubiquitous Intermezzo, although the main roles here are cardboard stereotypes, while Pag is the more sophisticated work, with characters whose psychological profiles are deftly characterized. Between them, the works demand 10 soloists (even the smaller parts require exceptionally skilled singers to do them justice) and a decent-sized chorus.

On opening night, the Cavalleria rusticana was beyond disappointing—indeed, it was close to a disaster. The opening Siciliana, Turiddu’s high-lying aria that is rendered off-stage, was clearly a stretch for Giancarlo Monsalve, a young Chilean tenor whose appearance is admittedly dashing but whose singing unfortunately did not match his looks. Monsalve’s voice has a certain ‘ping’ to it, to be sure, but he struggled all the way through, the top register painfully strained and with an ungainly beat, the dynamics unvaried. His Santuzza, the Russian-born Elena Bocharova, has been praised for her Dalila and Amneris, but on this night she was in poor health, and after attempting a couple of top notes in this high-lying mezzo role (indeed, it is often sung by a soprano) she gave up the fight and transposed several sections down by an octave, robbing the score of its passion and drama, substituting notes that should have soared above the orchestra with growling sounds deep in the chest register. What was particularly galling was the fact that despite being ill, and the presence of a substitute who was prepared to take over, Ms. Bocharova insisted on performing, thereby doing the opera, the audience, and ultimately herself a disservice.

By contrast, Italian mezzo Chiara Fracasso’s Mama Lucia sounded fresh and secure, well-acted and interpreted, making one wish she was the Santuzza instead. The Alfio, Armenian baritone Gevorg Hakobyan, has a large voice and he used it intelligently. Mezzo Marianna Vinci was a suitably voluptuous Lola. The chorus—a compendium of the Kazakh State Philharmonic Capella and India’s Paranjoti Academy Chorus, Living Voices and Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble—sang effectively, but suffered from Willy Landin’s unimaginative stage direction, basically trooping on and off the stage like automatons (all the more surprising given Landin’s renowned association with the Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires). Despite the generally handsome sets, the entire production was poorly conceptualized, complemented by the limp conducting of Antonello Allemandi whose slow tempi did the orchestra no favors and made this raw, visceral work drag dangerously.

Picture courtesy National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

After an interval of around an hour (necessary to change the sets, the organizers said), the curtain rose on an altogether different production, a modern interpretation of Pagliacci, the behind-the-scenes tragedy of a troupe of clowns and circus performers. From the very beginning, you could tell this was a production that was going to work. Tonio’s Prologue, one of the most difficult and beautiful arias in the entire bass-baritone repertoire, was delivered before television cameras recording every aspect of the unfolding drama, akin to a reality show. Silvio Zanon is physically huge and has a voice to match, well produced from its depths to a ringing top G. Soprano Sabina Cvilak, noted in her native Slovenia for her Puccini heroines, shone in the pathetic role of Nedda, the unhappy, trapped woman whose desire for freedom via an affair with Silvio (the solid Chilean baritone Javier Arrey) leads to her undoing. Nedda’s big aria, “Stridono lassu”, was beautifully poised – if only we could have seen her while she sang it, rather than having her walk around in near-darkness. The small but significant role of Beppe was well-taken by character tenor Filippo Adami (an effective Harlequin’s aria), and the circus/show scenes were livened by accomplished acrobats. Once again, the chorus acquitted itself well, playing members of the on-stage audience who think they’re watching a comedy only to become unwitting spectators to murder. Now if only director Landin had allowed the choristers to express horror during the final moments of the opera instead of sitting woodenly in the stands.

Ultimately the success of Pagliacci rests on its eponymous hero Canio, the clown who must laugh even as his heart is breaking, an anti-hero who must make the audience feel sorry for him even as he kills his wife in a jealous rage. If the core of the opera is “Vesti la giubba”, one of the most famous tenor arias in all of opera, Canio’s part in its entirety is a masterful characterization of a complex individual, demanding not only a glorious singer but a skilled actor to prevent the interpretation from degenerating into farcical melodrama. Francesco Anile provided a near-ideal blend, his mature tenor possessing the strength the role demands, as well as the “delicatezza” that serves as an effective foil to the more dramatic passages. He sensibly chose not to sob at the end of his big aria, unlike so many other singers, making his interpretation all the more impactful. The voice occasionally was pushed to its limits, but this added to the authenticity of the performance; this Canio is not a young man (Anile himself is 50), his grey hair a sharp contrast to Nedda’s youthful blond looks. Allemandi’s conducting in Pagliacci was far tauter than before, and he kept the work nicely on the boil.

A worthy effort then, by the NCPA to boost the standing of a long-neglected art form in Mumbai. Judging by the enthusiasm displayed by the audience (consisting of both diehard opera fans and newbies) there is room and demand for opera in this city, economic and artistic challenges notwithstanding.

More good than bad, then? This critic’s glass is half-full. But do keep pouring.

Roy Wadia