A significant milestone was crossed in operatic history on the Indian subcontinent with the four-city tour of Giving Voice Society’s production of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’. The cast, chorus, conductor, and the production team (director, music director, choreographers, set fabricator, costume designer, stage manager and production manager) were all Indian, as were three of the five musicians. The opera was fully staged in all locations but one (Pune). But the most important selling point of it all was the high quality of sound attained by the singers and musicians, the like of which had never before been produced by Indians, most of them home-grown and trained right here in India. It was the first time to my knowledge that a three-act opera had been taken on tour in India.
The opera was preceded by a half-hour of songs, also by Purcell, and sung in turn by members of the cast and chorus; solos, duets and trios accompanied by Mark Troop at the piano. They provided an opportunity for individual members of the troupe to showcase their ability. ‘Sound the Trumpet’ is cleverly written to suggest the qualities of a pair of trumpets, with a gradual swell of sound first in tandem and then the lines moving together but an interval of a third apart, trilling joyfully along the way. ‘What can we poor females do’ and ‘Man is for the Woman made’ stood out for their flirtatious humour.
Purcell’s stately three-act chamber opera ‘Dido and ‘Aeneas’ was effectively staged, with a minimalist set: three glass tanks representing Earth, Fire and Water. The sea is an important setting to the plot, as Aeneas arrives by ship, and at the end sets sail for Italy to found what would eventually become the city of Rome and the Roman Empire. The wooden backdrop also served as reflecting panels to transmit the sound back to the audience. The use of three-legged stools for the cast was handled very efficiently, but seemed a little fussy as they were lifted and replaced by the individual members.
The string quartet (with Troop at the ‘harpischord’, a Yamaha Clavinova) produced a really magnificent, delicate sound, despite intonation issues in the opening bars of the prelude to the first act. Two of the players (Raja Halder, first violin; Steffan Rees, cello) are seasoned players from the London professional circuit. Halder is an orchestral musician in England’s top orchestras (London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields), and Rees is a highly accomplished chamber musician in ensembles of the same calibre. The other two musicians (Aditya Mukherji, second violin; Omprakash Roy, viola) on the other hand do not have this level of experience. But the work put in by the quartet and Troop certainly yielded fruit.
The cast were well-chosen. Ramya Roy’s Dido was sung with even control across the range, and her presence well reflected the tragic queen’s torment and eventual acceptance of her fate. Aeneas is not an easy dramatic role to play, as the emotions change so quickly during the 50-minute opera. But Oscar Castellino has by now had some experience treading the boards in England, and handled this very well. The decision to cast the Sorceress as Sorcerer was a very good one, and baritone Rahul Bharadwaj was in his diabolical element. He said to me in a stage whisper backstage after the performance, “I won!” as all the Sorcerer’s plots and curses (with more than a little help from his evil friends, the Witches) bring the story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. And Bharadwaj ‘won’ in more than ways as well. The Destruction scene was the most compelling and abiding scene of the production. Tanisha Herbert’s Belinda was a dutiful lady-in-waiting, even shedding real tears at Dido’s deathbed at the finale.
The real ‘winners’ however were the entire chorus. They blended so well, and the dynamic contrasts came through beautifully, lending much dramatic effect to their lyrics.
Josias Priest (in whose School for Girls in London the opera was first performed in the summer of 1688) was a master dancer, so dances probably were an important component of the premiere of Dido and Aeneas as well. The dances in this production certainly helped lighten the mood of the plot line, strewn as it is with sorcery, fallen heroes and broken hearts.
All in all, this was an invigorating reading of Dido and Aeneas by Giving Voice Society, and we are privileged that Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop included Goa in its concert tour. This is the first time a complete, fully-staged opera performance of this exceptional quality has ever graced the Goan stage. It is a shame that there were just two singers from Goa (Melwyn Noronha and Preethi Coutinho) in this production. One hopes that there will be more participation from Goa in future Giving Voice projects.
The most heartwarming aspect was the spontaneous outpouring of interest and enthusiasm from the general public in Goa. Who says heavy rains are a deterrent to concertgoers? Passes vanished with incredible speed in the run-up to the concert evening.
The Kala Academy indoor auditorium is not a flattering concert venue to perform in, at least in terms of its acoustic quality. It has been the experience of many performers that they are not able to hear each other clearly (or sometimes not at all) even on the same stage. The sound carries across to the audience in the most un-uniform manner, with the experience of someone seated in the middle very different from other in the front, or from left to right, etc. And it is a very dry, non-resonant acoustic.
So it is vital to have a sound check before the concert. It is to the credit of the music directors (Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop) and conductor (Parvesh Java) that they got such well-shaped co-ordination from the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit. Would it have been even better if the musicians had been on the same level, stage left or right? Perhaps.
Nevertheless, it still underscores the crying need for a complete, expert acoustic overhaul of the Dinanath Mangueshkar auditorium if we really seriously want to take classical music and the concert experience to an even higher level.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 12 August 2014)