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Music Pages

Handel's Acis and Galatea gets exotic treatment in Bhutan

23 September 2013, Thimpu, Bhutan

Traditional Bhutanese dancers get their first taste of Handel
Traditional Bhutanese dancers get their first taste of Handel(Photo: Aaron Carpene)

Report by Robert Turnbull

Ever protective of its cultural heritage, the South Asian kingdom of Bhutan is famously wary of the influence of Westerners and their wanton ways. That includes tourists, the number of which never exceeds 20,000 annually.

Yet when the Italian stage-director Stefano Vizioli and his Australian harpsichordist partner Aaron Carpene proposed taking Handel’s Acis and Galatea to the Royal Textile Academy in Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, the Bhutanese prime minister and his cabinet were quick to approve. The project is officially a collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso, which has long had links with Bhutan.

In this highly unusual ‘co-production’, set in early 20th-century Bhutan, four Western soloists, 14 chorus members and a 16-piece Baroque orchestra will be joined by nine Bhutanese dancers, singers and musicians. Local instruments include the Bhutanese dulcimer (yanchen), powerful Tibetan horns (dungchen) and drums (nga).

As project creator and the opera’s conductor, Carpene’s aim is to recreate the atmosphere of the Bhutanese tsechu, or 5-day religious festivals usually performed in the courtyards of monasteries.

‘The dancers’ presence underlines specific dramatic moments, celebrating happiness and nature,’ he explains. Meanwhile, the opera’s principal characters will take on Bhutanese identities, such as Polythemus, here portrayed as ‘a wrathful deity’.

Carpene stresses the project’s appropriateness for a Buddhist society: ‘Pastoral themes and celebration of metamorphosis resonate deeply with the most transformative spiritual experiences represented in classical Western as well as Eastern philosophical traditions.’ Acis’s death, for example, will accompany a traditional Bhutanese cremation dance as well as a mourning song.

Acis and Galatea receives its premiere in Thimpu on 12 October 2013. The production will be repeated at El Paso Opera in October 2014.


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