Opera in two acts. Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
I finished this one in January and kept it back because I really wasn’t sure what to do with it. Then I found that Moniuszko also wrote an opera based on the same play and I figured I would match them up as frames for this month.
Many of the reviews this year have a common theme of prejudice or persecution represented in opera or in relation to certain operas. Here we discuss the caste system of India, specifically the polar ends of the system: the Brahmins and the Untouchables, or as they are more properly known, Dalits. This system has its origin in the Ancient Vedic Religion of the Aryan invaders of India (circa 1500 B.C.E.), although it only solidified during the Mughal Empire and the British Raj (16th century and 19th century). That is if one follows traditional interpretations of history as there is now a branch of Indian studies (mostly disregarding by academia) claiming that the migration did not happen. So there may be some other reason why there are very obviously people of Iranian origin living in northern and central India today, or perhaps not. At present in India discrimination on the basis of caste is constitutionally banned, but it still plays a massive role in society and negatively impacts of lives of up to 32% of a given regional population. Some 165 million Dalits are subject to discrimination, including forced labour and inability to purchase land and own property. New Delhi has had to enforce a system of educational and job reservations (a system known in North America as Affirmative Action) to be put in place for Dalits to provide opportunities for social mobility. This discrimination is not just practiced by Hindus in India, but also by Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians.
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SETTING: Benares, India. Sometime in the distant past but seeing that the opera opens with a triumphant victory over the Portuguese, some time in the 16th century would be a good guess. The Brahmin Akebare (bass) is about to marry his daughter Neala (soprano) to a warrior named Idamore (tenor) when Zarete (baritone), his father, arrives and reveals that Idamore is a Dalit. After executing Zarete, Idamore, and even Neala after she begs for mercy on the two men, Akebare basks in glory as he takes power in the kingdom to the rejoicing of no one else. There are seven musical numbers.
ACT 1: (62 minutes)
Scene 1: A palm forest before a Brahmin temple.
1, 5: In questa a te sacrata/Al monarca sovrauman After a brief fanfare and some more serious stuff from the strings, we get the first chorus *, which eventually turns in a co-ed hymn ** with more fanfare after a trumpet accompanied apparent cavatina for Akebare (it is the weakest of the character introducing cavatinas so if it goes right passed you, don’t be forlorn) as he announces the upcoming wedding of his daughter Neala to the warrior Idamore.
11: Parea che mentre l’aloe After an excellently powerful (if subtle) recitative in which Neala arrives not knowing of the plan her father has to marry her off to the man she actually loves so she goes into a sad dream monologue **.
25: Tergi, o Dio! An interestingly strong recitative * as Zarete arrives incognito and overhears Neala speaking with her maid Zaide. Zarete and Neala engage in a dialogue in which the former reveals his Dalit-ness, which Neala pities. A confidant of Akebare, Empsaele comes on announcing the arrival of Idamore.
31: Il figlio e qui Zarete gives us his social equality speech, which is actually a very catchy bass aria **.
Scene 2: Interior of the Brahmin temple.
37, 41: Lontano, più l’amai After a two minute long interlude during which the scenery changes, we finally meet Idamore who has a very lovely recitative * followed by an even better (if mild) aria ** with an equally mild cabaletta which does however have a bit of a pulse to it towards the end. Zarete comes on and father and son have a confrontation. Zarete things his son is ungrateful for hiding his origins.
50: D’un Akebar la figlia The act finale is a fine duettino con coro for father and son **. A little sub-standard as it is not the typical big ensemble act end, but good nevertheless. Zarete tells his son to forget about the wedding, but Idamore asks his father only that he could say good-bye to Neala one last time. It is agreed.
ACT 2: (53 minutes)
Scene 1: Same as act 1 scene 1, but at night.
7: Ei stesso!/Amo Idamor. Del caso è l’opra After a series of long but still powerful recitatives between the Brahmins and then for the two lovers, a long duet **. He reveals his Dalit origins which does not bother Neala in the slightest. They decide to run away together in order to escape their fathers. The second half is more docile, which is a little strange as they are talking about death now.
Scene 2: An antechamber of the temple.
16: Another scenery changing interlude *, atmospheric.
23: Qui pel figlio After another good recitative, another great aria for Zarete **. A sparkly chorus of priests is heard off stage preparing for the wedding ceremony, so Zarete decides that he is going to crash the wedding in order to make an issue of social justice which will probably get him killed.
29: Questa e dunque A slow moving (at first) cabaletta ** as he plans on getting back at his son for his apparent deception.
Scene 3: A majestic room at the entrance of the temple sanctuary.
33: Brama, autor de l’universo The twenty-minute long finale *, starts unpromisingly with a standard (and starchy) marching chorus made a little more interesting by the inclusion of an on-stage trumpet. Idamore waits for the arrival of Neala at the altar to a recitative with a good orchestral accompaniment (there is a dance-like tune that pops in randomly). Akebare makes a warning about the presence of Untouchables.
40: Da si caro e dolce istante The first item of note is a delicate wedding vow duet for Neala and Idamore **. Empsaele interrupts everything with warnings of the presence of an Untouchable.
44: Morte io voglio Zarete makes his caste equality speech **. The other three react. This is followed by some rapid fire orchestral angst: Akebare sentences Zarete to immediate execution, prompting Idamore to out himself (rather sweetly, oddly enough). He is also ordered out for immediate execution by Akebare. Neala pleads with her father to spare the man she loves, he refuses and she decides voluntarily to die with her beloved.
49: The stretta finale * has one of the oddest jovial tunes as the two Dalits happily embrace their impending deaths. It is not terrible, but it is a far cry from the deadly situation on stage and a bit of a dramatic let down.
The one thing that struck me about this opera is how strongly dramatic the recitatives are. Although they are mostly just string accompaniment, they possess an unusual intensity which I was certainly not expecting. Instead of feeling like we were on music low-temp auto-pilot, the difference between recitative and arioso in this opera is sometimes very blurry. As for the recording, the soloist work is better than the chorus. The performance of Polish baritone Marcin Bronikowski as Zarete in particular has been greatly complimented in many reviews that have been written since the 2001 Bongiovanni release of this live recording. This bass/baritone role is by far the best both musically and dramatically (not just for its social/class justice angle) as the other characters (although the romantic leads do get some good music to sing) are rather wooden. The libretto and plot are not to the level of score, however, and the ending in particular is grim even if musically it is incredibly (suicidally?) flat. Akebare, the only surviving character of the four principles, is the least endearing both musically and dramatically. Ultimately, we have a great baritone role, a terribly unsympathetic bass role, and a standard soprano-tenor coupling, with strong recitatives and a very weak finish. Although none of the music is great, some of it is really very good and worth a listen or two. A beta.