In October 2016, when I covered the Royal Opera House Mumbai (reopened after a 23-year hiatus), I scarcely imagined that a full-length Italian opera would grace its stage less than a year later.
So it was a real delight to find myself back there this past weekend, watching two strapping lads duel it out over a badminton match, all the while singing ‘Si fiato in corpo avete, sí sí la sposerete’ (‘You WILL marry her, while there is breath in your body’).
I was attending a staging of the comic opera (opera buffa) Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage), set in two acts by Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), and starring an all-Indian double-cast with the Symphony Orchestra of India, under the baton of Indian-origin conductor Maria Badstue. It was produced by Giving Voice Society, an initiative of Mumbai-origin soprano and Professor of Music at the Royal College of Music London Patricia Rozario, and her pianist-husband Mark Troop.
The Secret Marriage is set to a riveting plot, centered around a wealthy Bolognese merchant Geronimo (sung by bass) with two daughters, Elisetta and Carolina (both soprano parts). Carolina secretly weds Geronimo’s humble clerk Paolino (tenor) and is terrified of breaking the news to her father, sister and aunt Fidalma (mezzo-soprano). Paolino knows that his boss craves a noble title; so he arranges a match for Elisetta with Count Robinson (bass), a rake and philanderer, greedy for money. The hope is that Elisetta’s marriage to the Count will pacify Geronimo.
All hell breaks loose when Count Robinson covets Carolina instead, and Fidalma reveals her passion for a much younger Paolino. The rest, you can imagine.
In this staging, Rozario impressively succeeded in training two casts of singers for diverse roles.
Twice As Nice
In this staging, Rozario impressively succeeded in training two casts of singers for diverse roles. Each cast sang two of the four performances, and I was fortunate to hear both on the final night, at the matinee and evening shows. Considering that the duration of the opera is almost three hours, one has to admire the stamina of the musicians in the pit, and of Badstue. Also note that the ‘off-duty’ non-singing cast in each performance was constantly onstage, moving props and playing peripheral roles.
The Second Coming
I personally enjoyed the second performance even more than the first; the singers and musicians were a tighter, more cohesive unit. But there were glittering moments in both. The onstage chemistry between Sandeep Gurrapadi’s Paolino and Natasha Agarwal’s Carolina was extremely convincing. Oscar Castellino’s Count Robinson stole the show, as was evident from the enthusiastic applause he elicited when he took his bow.
Shreya Nayak, although home-grown and not having had the advantage of overseas training that many others in the cast possessed, is one to watch and hear in the future. Her warm-toned, sweet-timbered soprano voice carried beautifully across to the dress circle, which was my vantage point.
Hear I Am
Better attention on the part of some of the cast to Badstue’s clear visual cues might have avoided occasional lapses in co-ordination between the singing on stage and the musicians in the pit. I also couldn’t help feeling that strategic wooden panelling in the plushly upholstered auditorium would greatly improve its acoustics, obviating any need for artificial enhancement or ‘reverb’ amplification, however minimal. Some sound-bleed of ambient traffic noise into the auditorium is perhaps inevitable; but both performances were sufficiently gripping that it wasn’t intrusive unless I consciously listened for it.
There were also clever touches by stage director Rehaan Engineer. A pistols-at-dawn scenario looms between the Count and Geronimo when Robinson tries to renege on the original marriage contract; it segued instead into a comical badminton volley between the two, as they simultaneously sang their bargaining duet. Special mention for Troop at the harpsichord, who skilfully led the singers through their recitatives connecting the various arias in the opera.
Great show aside, perhaps the most heartening thing for me was that all four performances at the 574-seater venue were sold out, amply proving that there is an appetite and audience for opera, which bodes very well for the future of western classical music in India.
This review was contributed by Dr Luis Dias, a physician, musician, music critic, journalist and founder of Child's Play India Foundation. Read his work athttp://www.luisdias.wordpress.com.
Image Credit: @mumbai_igers for Opera House
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