Franco Alfano’s Sakùntala, with both text and music by the composer, consists of three acts and is based on the seven-act Sanskrit play The Recognition of Sakùntala by Kalidasa, a 4th century playwright who is considered the Shakespeare of India. This play, his most famous, was translated into both German and English in the 18th century and was known and appreciated by Goethe. There have been many musical works based on the play, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, including operas, oratorio, ballet, and symphonic works.
The opera is set in India in ancient times.
Act One takes place in a lush, overgrown forest surrounding a hermitage. The King and his hunting party approach in pursuit of a gazelle that the ascetics beg him to spare because it is sacred and he does so. He meets Sakùntala, the protectress of the hermitage, and is struck by her beauty and, once left alone, they embrace and kiss. As night descends, the King kneels down to place his ring on Sakùntala’s finger and they depart together.
Act Two is set in the courtyard of the hermitage surrounded by a high wall with a large doorway in the center. The voice of a priest, Durvàsas, is heard calling out to Sakùntala to open the doorway. When she does not appear, he curses her saying that whoever loves her will forget her, but then modifies it saying that by showing her husband a jewel given to her she can reverse its effect. Sakùntala’s father, Kanva, announces that she will soon be the happy mother of a great son and that she must now leave to join her husband. Her friends dress her in veils and, accompanied by two ascetics, she leaves the hermitage.
Act Three takes place in the King’s palace where a dance is being performed, but the King is unhappy and sends the dancers away. Sakùntala arrives, but the King does not recognize her. Holding out her hand to show him his ring, she sees that it has been lost and runs away in desperation. A guard then drags in a fisherman who is accused of stealing the King’s ring which he had found by the shore. On seeing the ring, the King’s memory is restored and he sends his guards to find Sakùntala and bring her back to him. His equerry then returns and tells how Sakùntala was seen throwing herself into the pool of the nymphs where a cloud of fire surrounded her and carried her away. The King collapses in despair, but then the voice of Sakùntala’s soul is heard telling him not to despair because fate decreed that the greatest light of the world would be born out of the greatest suffering. One of the ascetics appears with the little child wrapped in veils as all kneel before the royal heir.
Alfano’s magnificent music combines elements of Debussy and Ravel, with Italianate warmth and emotionality. The orchestra is quite large with a diverse array of unusual percussion instruments and difficult passages in the strings, including string parts divided by stand instead of by section.
The roles, particularly for the leading soprano and tenor are extremely difficult with many extended, high-lying passages.
The Board of Directors of Teatro Grattacielo are extremely pleased and honored to present this sumptuously beautiful opera to New York audiences for its North American Premiere at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts is the premier venue for the presentation of cultural and performing arts events for New York University and lower Manhattan. Led by executive producer Jay Oliva (President Emeritus, NYU) and executive director Michael Harrington, the programs of the Skirball Center reflect NYU’s mission as an international center of scholarship, defined by excellence and innovation and shaped by an intellectually rich and diverse environment. A vital aspect of the Center’s mission is to build young adult audiences for the future of live performance.