I registered for the course “Goa in the making of the Portuguese empire (16th-18th centuries)” conducted by Dr. Ângela Barreto Xavier a few weeks ago because of the intriguing title, and because I had encountered Dr. Xavier’s name in much scholarly Goa-related research. I am glad I did, as each day on the course offered fresh perspectives and observations about ‘old’ hitherto unchallenged assertions and assumptions about Goan history. The idea that “Goa was a laboratory of political experimentation”, and that “if successful, the Goan experience would become a model ready to be applied in other territories of the Portuguese empire” was very new to me.
The fifth session (and the related reading material) of her course in particular caught my attention: I learnt that operas had been staged in the Cidade de Goa (today’s Old Goa) way back in 1751. And not just one, but two of them, in quick succession!
But the context in which they were staged is rather complex. The overarching title of Dr. Xavier’s paper “L’Inde mise en scène” (literally “India staged”, or “India as a theatre prop”) hints at this, and is elaborated upon in the subheading “The Tragedy of Porus: Empire and Politics in 18th century Goa”.
Dr. Xavier makes the case that both the operas staged in Goa “evoked history and memory— and this was certainly their principal goal.” Both celebrate “The Romance of Alexander the Great”, any of several collections of legends concerning the sometimes historically factual, and sometimes mythical, exploits of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), creator of one of the largest empires of the ancient world in his short lifespan, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.
British historian Andrew Roberts (b. 1963-) in his lecture ‘Alexander and Imperialism’ suggests that the conqueror has an “afterlife” as well, in the numerous times his legacy is conveniently resurrected to justify and prop up an imperialist agenda. Various western imperial powers resorted to this, from the British to Napoleon, and so did the Portuguese.
The story of the encounter between Alexander and King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC), believed to have been fought on the banks of the Jhelum river in the Punjab Province of modern-day Pakistan, in particular, “helped to fashion Portuguese self-representation as magnanimous and clement conquerors.”
According to the mists of legend surrounding that battle, the “bravery, war skills and princely attitude” of Porus greatly impressed Alexander. When asked how he wished to be treated, Porus is believed to have replied “”Treat me as a king would treat another king”. The story goes that Alexander did so, allowing Porus to retain his kingship, but as satrap within Alexander’s vast empire.
This tale well suited an imperialistic agenda, portraying bravery on the part of both the Greeks (representing the West) and the Indians (the Orient), but with an inevitable triumph for the West, who then display magnanimity in victory while the East has no option but to be gracious in defeat. Porus in effect becomes a mirror reflection of Alexander, but still a reflection, an ‘illusion’ at best.
The title of the first opera, ‘The Tragedy of Porus’, which Dr. Xavier also uses as the title of her paper, was in fact staged and better known in Europe as ‘Alessandro nell’Indie’ (Alexander in India), using the libretto by the famous Italian poet and librettist, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). However Dr. Xavier’s paper doesn’t mention whose musical adaptation of the libretto was used in the Goa production of the opera. This allows room for some sleuthing, which I love doing.
Many composers worked on Metastasio’s libretti, and ‘Alessandro nell’Indie’ provided the creative springboard for Leonardo Vinci (1730; and no relation to his more illustrious namesake) and Giovanni Pacini (1824). Vinci’s opera could theoretically fit the bill, as it predates the Goa staging (1751). But it is in three acts, requiring chorus and orchestra. Details of the scale of the Goa production are not mentioned, but I’m guessing that had it been an extravaganza, it would have been noted.
Dr. Xavier does mention that “the opera consisted of six singers, five French and one Portuguese. Four of them belonged to the ‘house of the Marquis’ [Dom Francisco Assis de Távora], and had followed the [newly-arrived, 1750] Viceroy to India for his entertainment.” The six singers would have played the parts of Alessandro Magno, Poro, Cleofide (fictional queen of “another part of India”, and Poro’s lover), Erisenna (Poro’s sister), Gandarte (general of Poro’s army, and lover of Erisenna) and Timagene (confidant of Alexander, but his secret enemy). We do not know the gender of the singers, but interestingly, in the 1730 première of Vinci’s opera in Rome, all roles but Gandarte (tenor) were sung by women, who took on trouser-roles for Alessandro, Poro (sopranos) and Timagene (contralto).
But Xavier then mentions that the Távoras (the large influence was actually the spouse D. Leonor) chose a work with French libretto, which was translated to Portuguese, so this rules out the Vinci opera, whose libretto is in Italian. She then speculates that “the Goan ‘Tragedy of Porus’ was probably a version of [the great French playwright Jean] Racine’s ‘Alexandre le Grand’ (1665), to which music and chorus had been added.” The composer however is sadly not known.
Apparently the very next day, another opera (interestingly, “produced by two Goan nobles”, sons of the powerful viscount of Asseca, Diogo Correia de Sá) was staged: Adolonimo of Sidon, and this time the composer is known: António Alexandre de Lima. However an internet search about him didn’t reveal much, and although I was able to find some information about the librettist Apostolo Zeno whose text was adapted for this opera, this opera doesn’t feature among his oeuvre, at least via the means at my disposal (the internet, of course, and any books on music I could lay my hands on). But the synopsis is not dissimilar to Mozart’s 1775 opera ‘Il re pastore’ (libretto again by Metastasio) or Gluck’s opera of the same name in 1756 based on the same libretto. While Alexander (Alessandro) is the pivotal role in Il re pastore, this distinction is given to Adolonimo (‘rightful heir of Sidon’) in the opera staged in Goa, in a similar name-change to the opera staged the day before.
I asked Dr. Xavier where these operas were likely to have been staged, and she felt it could have been the Casa de Pólvora, possibly before an invited audience of a hundred-odd dignitaries and personalities. What did they make of the operas’ themes? Was it just grandiose entertainment, or did the symbolism matter?
I was also interested to learn that the Távoras, obviously lovers of culture, “immediately upon their arrival in Goa” in 1750, commissioned the French engineer Pierre Vicente Vidal, to build a theatre in their palace in Goa. Perhaps it wasn’t ready a year later in time for these operas the next year; but did it ever get completed? Or did their departure in 1754 (and their execution in Lisbon in 1759 by the Marquês de Pombal on trumped-up charges) mean the work was stalled or even reversed? I’d love to learn more.
(An edited version of this article was published on 01 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)