The cast of Fiddler on the roof
What better way to celebrate Italian Week than with a sampling of opera? If they could but see into the future, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Bernini would have dreamed of being great tenors. They would have loved, too, designing opera houses for the works of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini.
But everything has its place, and in the opening speech made by an Italian diplomat at the Nelum Pokuna theatre, Italian culture was defined as 1. Cinema 2. Art 3. Music 4. Food and wine. Give credit to the man for listing the likes of The Barber of Seville above pizza, macaroni and Chianti Classico. The Italian cinema of the 1950s and 60s belongs up there with the best of other art forms, But if Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni had been asked to make that list, they would have in all likelihood listed cinema below Italian opera and art (if by that the good diplomat meant painting and sculpture).
By listing food next to music, however, he wasn’t far off the mark, for Italian opera delves into the subject of culinary delights with gusto. You only have to think of Don Giovanni’s sumptuous last supper and the orgiastic food intake of Puccini’s bohemians. Isabella in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri has Mustafa trapped between overeating and stupefied sleep. As if this wasn’t enough, opera follows up by lauding drink as the natural companion to good eating. Just think of the pleasure that Herod in Salome takes in thinking of all the wines in his cellar.
It’s a good thing that none of the above was in the repertoire; according to inside sources, the orchestra had to make do with biscuits and soft drinks during four marathon sessions of rehearsals which preceded the final event. Apart from the conductor, and the soprano, there were seven Italian musicians here for the occasion , two female and five males – first violin, first viola, first cello, first flute, first of the second violins, first horn and piano, which was played by Mashio Junko of Japanese origin.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Italian musicians except one remained very distant throughout the rehearsals, not mixing with their local counterparts or trying to put them at ease
But the ornate litter (or rather, the gestatorial chair) on which this sumptuous music carried was borne on the shoulders of a 60-member Sri Lankan orchestra. Except for a very few, they were mostly young. As we don’t yet have a full-time professional national orchestra for Western music, this orchestra was fashioned out of existing entities such as violin maestro Ananda Dabare’s orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, and the armed forces’ bands, to whom most of the brass and percussion players belonged. Called the National Unity Orchestra, this is the brainchild of the singing duo, the de Lanerolle Brothers Rohan and Ishan.
By listing food next to music, however, he wasn’t far off the mark, for Italian opera delves into the subject of culinary delights with gusto. You only have to think of Don Giovanni’s sumptuous last supper and the orgiastic food intake of Puccini’s bohemians
The youngest member was a twelve year old schoolgirl pianist, and the two violin sections were filled with many young faces. The one exception to the military camaraderie of the percussion section was a lively young woman playing the bass drum. That was Rachel Halliday, who is an opera singer in her own right.
According to inside sources, inter-cultural relationships were strained during the frenzied rehearsals. The orchestra, many of whom did not know each other, coming as they did from so many different sources, had a tough time working under the rigorous artistic demands of conductor Jacopo Sipari di Pescasseroli. He expected a very high standard, perhaps not realizing that our musicians are never full-timers but people who teach or work at other jobs to sustain their music. Besides, four practice sessions were hardly sufficient to be brilliantly familiar with all the eight eieces in the repertoire. Adding to the musicians’ woes, the conductor often set a frenzied tempo for the faster pieces, reacting with a nerve-shattering glare whenever somebody made the slightest mistake. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Italian musicians except one remained very distant throughout the rehearsals, not mixing with their local counterparts or trying to put them at ease. One evening, the orchestra arrived to find out that the rehearsal room without lights and air conditioning, due to an oversight by the embassy about payments. In short, everyone worked under great stress in less than congenial conditions.
But they pulled it off. Sri Lankan ingenuity and adaptability, which has enabled people to survive abhorrent politics and public disasters for so long, finally allowed things to fall together at the right time. The conductor had asked his orchestra for a miracle, and they delivered, every man, woman and child. It’s hardly surprising that soprano Sylvana Froli sounded inspired, singing ‘Tu, Piccolo Iddio’ from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Rohan de Lanerolle gave a mellifluous rendering of a La Traviata song, and the two brothers sang together ‘Mattinata’ by Ruggero Leoncavallo. As the music soared, one expected to see things fluttering on stage.
The conductor was often seen at a crouch, his knees bent and arms outstretched, the classic figure of a man supplicating the gods – pagan ones, for Italian opera is not known to be pious, and that evening his prayers were answered with Dionysian aplomb. His movements were so lyrically frenetic that it looked as if he was overseeing some pagan rite. But that’s what the music was in spirit. It’s hard to think of a British, American or German conductor producing that particular body language. The heat exuded by this electrifying performance would be sufficient to melt even the polar caps, and it was all smiles, hugs and tears when it was all over.
It was a magnificent start and a great way to pay homage to Italian art and culture – whether we talk about Michelangelo Buonarotti or Michelangelo Antonioni, or Rossini, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Bernini or Verdi, or the imaginative designers who made Italian design (from cars and furniture to clothes) so exciting in the first three decades after WWII, there is so much to appreciate and celebrate here despite the current sad plight of Italian politics.
In the meantime, while we should be glad that we have a venue which can accommodate an orchestra and an event of this magnitude, it’s worth asking for which purpose this construction was made. Though it’s called the Nelum Pokuna theatre, I can’t remember when a play was staged there last. Our dramatists cannot afford it. It isn’t an opera house, either. The acoustics are bad. Musical extravaganzas are staged there from time to time, but the auditorium is badly designed and gives neck cramps to those sitting in the aisles. It remains closed much of the time, and it’s run by the army, which has no expertise in programming cultural affairs.
While we should be glad that we have a venue which can accommodate an orchestra and an event of this magnitude, it’s worth asking for which purpose this construction was made
That doesn’t mean that operas, ballets, plays and dance events cannot be staged there. Some interior redesigning could correct the flaws and the management can be given to a competent civilian authority. But where are the operas, ballets, plays etc? All we have now is an impressive-looking structure awaiting a worthwhile cultural programme.
A scene from Fiddler on the Roof Movie