Perhaps I’m a little old fashioned, but I’ve always imagined a gala to be some sort of musical festivity that takes place on the beach, near a pond or on the banks of a river. Everybody would be dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sandals knocking back spiked pina coladas. A Hawaiian guitar would be strung in the background, while a wahine draped in a sarong, with a face and figure like Dorothy Lamour, would waft by singing “Moon of Manakoora”. I was therefore a little surprised to discover that the Grand Opera Gala held at the Sheraton Hotel, Karachi on April 28 was not staged at the pool but in the Grand Ballroom. But don’t get me wrong, everything was just right; the arrangements, the food, the lighting, the helpful ushers and the service, thanks to the dynamic marketing director Kamran Sani who is a stickler for detail. The only problem was I wasn’t able to study the programme as I have yet not mastered the art of reading by candlelight and therefore had to recognise the pieces as they came along. This wasn’t at all difficult as they were all hoary, old chestnuts.
There were a few more surprises. The first was that instead of the usual crop of southern and central European sopranos and tenors, who usually play the Asian circuit, the cast consisted of two Iberians and three Thais. This has never before happened in the land of the pure, but I don’t think anybody in the audience really noticed. The second surprise was that the audience appeared to be leading the performers, rather than the other way around. And so; the soprano doing the tear-jerker in La Boheme (an opera in four acts) appeared to be afraid to pause for breath, in case the audience suddenly decided to burst into applause in the middle of the long sustained passage. This was also the case when the two sopranos plunged into the “Flower Song” by Lakme and one of them felt her pitch sagging a bit at the top of the range.
The Portuguese tenor Lionel Pinheiro and the Spanish baritone Stefan Sanchez were quite safe when the two Neapolitan songs floated across the room; for the pianist Krastin Nastev made sure he kept both hands on the keys between the verses as if to say ‘hang on chaps , there’s still a little bit more’. However, “O Sole Mio” and “Torna a Surriento” are now rapidly acquiring the status of cliches. I wish in future the lusty tenors who visit this neck of the woods would sing other Neapolitan classics like “I’ M’arricordo ‘e Napule” which was one of Enrico Caruso’s great triumphs, “Dicitencello Vuje” and “A Vucchella”, which have been sung by all the great tenors, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Franco Corelli, Mario Del Monaco, Tito Schipa and Mario Lanza.
The contemplative and emotionally powerful and melancholy aria from Tannhäuser was most enjoyable, as was the “Non Piu Andrai” from “The Marriage of Figaro”. Now a word about Nastev. Pianists in concerts who accompany singers usually have a quiet presence. Nevertheless, in Nastev’s hands the piano was handled very well and the music skillfully wrought. He was alert to the music’s nuances and was particularly impressive in the Flower duet from Lakme, (which is almost as melodious as “Barcarolle” from “The Tales of Hoffman” by Jaques Offenbach). Never putting a finger wrong, he was faithful to the music’s modulations.
The piano can never really take the place of an orchestra. And I don’t know why visiting artists don’t use the method once successfully employed by the Alliance Francaise in Karachi many years ago. Taped music was used and the singers responded magnificently. It made the “Printemps Qui Commence” from Samson and Delilah all the more enjoyable. All the listener had to do was close his eyes and pretend he was sitting in La Scala, Covent Garden or the Metropolitan. Besides, it would also be possible to stage excerpts from Wagner’s Ring or Salome by the great Richard Strauss. You can always rely on the French to be innovative. The co-operation of the Alliance Francaise de Karachi in the Sheraton recital was greatly appreciated and on the whole the guests had a jolly good time.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.
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