A fascinating exhibition of artefacts from Kalidasa’s play at Rome Opera House nearly a century ago says a lot about the global influence of Indian culture
When Rome Opera House opened in 1880—after it was built in just 18 months—it marked a theatrical celebration of Rome’s new status as the capital of Italy. Many major operas were to follow at the spectacular theatre, beginning with those by famous composers like Gioachino Rossini and Giacomo Puccini. But a particular performance in 1939 drew the attention of the aficionados of opera in the city. That opera was called Sakuntala.
“India has exercised and exerts a fascination over dozens of generations, starting from romanticism to the Beatles. For this reason, many writers, painters and musicians have tried to recreate in their works the atmosphere and the infinite range of colours of this fantastic part of the world,” says Francesco Reggiani, the head of historical archive at Rome Opera House. Thanks to his archive, Reggiani and his deputy Alessandra Malusardi have brought to India for the first time a curated exhibition of the sketches and costumes used in the 1939 opera, Sakuntala, a play in Sanskrit about the daughter of sage Vishwamitra derived from the Mahabharata.
Opened on March 14 at the Italian Cultural Centre in Delhi, the exhibition—titled Sakuntala and Other Love Stories: The Charm of India in Opera and Ballet—has 16 sketches, 71 costume designs and 10 original costumes from Sakuntala and some other operas made by famous Italian choreographers and costume designers of the last century, such as Cipriano Efisio Oppo, Mario Pompei, Veniero Colasanti, John Moore, Salvatore Russo, Mario Giorsi and Mario Cito Filomarino. “It is universally known that melodrama was born and developed in Italy… perhaps what is less known is the fascination that India has exercised on some Italian and European composers,” says Reggiani.
The story of the opera Sakuntala starts in 1921 when renowned Italian composer Franco Alfano composed a new opera called Legend of Sakuntala. The seeds of interest in Kalidasa’s play were, however, sown at least a century earlier when Italian poet Giovanni Berchet summarised the first English translation of it by William Jones (1789) into Italian in 1818. “For the first Italian translation (by Antonio Marazzi) directly from Sanskrit, however, we had to wait until 1871,” says Reggiani. “Composers in half of Europe were inspired by Kalidasa’s heroine,” he adds.
The Germans already had a Sakuntala composed by Karl Perfall, which was presented in Munich in 1853 and there was a ballet-pantomime by French composer Ernest Reyer with libretto by poet Theophil Gautier five years later. These were followed by an oratory by German composer Philipp Scharwenka in 1883 and a Buhnenfestspiele (stage festival play) by Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner.
“(Italian composer Franco) Alfano got music from India, a difficult music, and merged it with his own while composing Sakuntala,” says Reggiani’s deputy Malusardi. “The original play is in seven acts and Alfano’s opera had three acts with nothing missing,” adds Malusardi, who has put together the exhibition especially for India.
The Delhi exhibition also has sketches of all the three acts, showing the elaborate sets of the opera. The other sketches reveal the painstaking process of creating costumes for Italian tenor and soprano. “The exhibition is a tribute to what the culture of India has transmitted to the whole of the West,” she says.
Sakunatala was staged three times by Rome Opera House since Alfano’s composition in 1921. The first was in 1939 with scenes and costumes by Cipriano Efisio Oppo, a famous Italian artist. There was another in the Fifties and the last was in 2006 with scenes by Maurizio Varamo and costumes by Anna Biagiotti.
The exhibition, which will run till April 15, also has sketches and costumes from operas by European composers—who used topics and stories of south-eastern character—that were staged at the Rome Opera House. These include an opera by German composer Richard Strauss and Italian Adriano Lualdi’s The Daughter of the King (1921), which was inspired by the Vedas. Another one is The Pearl of Fishermen (1863) by French composer Georges Bizet, which was set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
The author is a freelancer