Alfano is probably best known for his completion of the third act of Puccini’s Turandot or maybe for his Cyrano de Bergerac but he did write other operas including Sakùntala, which Fritz Reiner described as “the Italian Parsifal“. I don’t know why as, apart from having a religious/mythological theme, they aren’t very similar at all.
Sakùntala is based on a Sanskrit play. A king while out hunting comes across a remote hermitage, falls in love with the daughter of the place and leaves her with child. She neglects to opn the gates to a powerful sage who curses her so that the king forgets her, even when she is taken to his court. A fisherman finds the ring that wilunlock the curse and takes it to the king who now remembers everything. Meanwhile the girl has thrown herself into the Pool of Nymphs and been assimilated into Heaven from whence she forgives the king and prophecies that their son will be a great ruler.
The music is lush and somewhat dreamlike and takes its time. To me it sounds much closer to say Hahn than Wagner (let alone Strauss who was a contemporary). The vocal lines are long, slow and, frankly, pretty dull. At its best it approaches something Gurrelieder like but those moments are few and far between.
It’s not often performed and the only video recording was made at the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania in 2016. The production was designed and directed by Massimo Gasparon and it’s straightforwardly “oriental”; sometimes too much so. Everybody is dressed in long robes with lots of bling for the important characters. Thy move slowly. The ladies make “oriental priestess” gestures. There’s a ballet at the beginning of Act 3 featuring girls in gold bikinis and guys in gold butt floss that had me choking back the laughs. It really doesn’t improve matters.
The performances are adequate. Frankly everybody sounds a little overparted despite the theatre being quite small. Sakùntala is sung bySilvia Dalla Benetta and her lover by Enrique Ferrer. Both have a tendency to force in a somewhat screamy fashion. The best singing is from the two maids sung by Kamelia Kader and Nelya Kravchenko. Sakùntala’s father is sung by Francesco Palmieri who sounds rather past his sell by daye but it is an old man’s role. The house orchestra sounds rather good and Nikša Bareza’s conducting seems consistent with the overall tone of both work and production.
The DVD release is quite “bare bones”. There are no extras, the only sound track is PCM stereo and the only subtitle options are English and Italian. That said, the audio visual quality is pretty high and the video direction is good. The booklet contains a synopsis and a track listing and a long essay by Paolo Isotta which stakes a claim for Alfano as one of the true greats of the 20th century; certainly far beyond such hacks as Strauss or Bartók. He compares Sakùntala favourably with Die Frau ohne Schatten. I am not convinced!
Honestly, if I hadn’t been reviewing I don’t think I would have made it past the first act (which would have been a pity as I would have missed the comic gold of the ballet). If there is a worthwhile opera here, which I doubt, this performance is not a good advocate for it. Strictly for the curious!