The story is based on a drama by “the Homer of India”, the most famous classical Oriental poet Kalidasa.
At a holy place (actually the foothills of the Himalayas) the people are making sacrifices to the gods. The High Priest Kanna leads his foster-daughter Sakontala to the altar. We learn that King Duschmanta had lost his way during a hunt, had met Sakontala and immediately fallen in love with her and given her a ring as proof that he wished to marry her. Since then Duschmanta has returned to his palace. In an aria Sakontala expresses her feelings.
In a wild gorge nearby, the holy man Durwasas lives. He is furious that Sakontala, in her transports of love, has not shown him due attention. He calls down a curse upon her which will make Duschmanta unable to recognize her. The scene develops into a quintet: Sakontala’s women friends intercede for her, but two demons persuade the offended Durwasas not to retract his curse. However, he does mitigate the curse: Duschmanta will recognize Sakontala when she shows him the wedding ring. But Durwasas knows that the demons will make sure she soon loses the ring.
With her foster-father and retinue, Sakontala presents herself at the court of King Duschmanta. But the King – who is under the influence of the demons – does not recognize her and banishes her from his presence. She cannot show the ring, for she has lost it while bathing in the river. In despair she tries to convince the King, begging him only to let her stay near him. But in vain. To thunder and lightning, the gods carry her away (she is herself half goddess, half human). From the heavens we hear an invisible boys’ choir sing Lieblos verstossen ohne erbarmen (‘Cast off without love, without mercy’).
Two officers of the law have arrested a fisherman whom they have caught trying to sell a costly ring with the King’s name engraved on it. The fisherman confesses that he found the ring in the belly of a fish. When the King sees the ring his memory comes back. He releases and rewards the fisherman, who immediately invites the two officers to celebrate his good fortune with him, dancing and drinking at a hostelry...
In a quartet with two of her friends and her mother, Sakontala regains hope of being united with Duschmanta. The subsequent buffo scene presents the court jester Madhavia, who has heard that the King is again planning a hunt. Madhavia hates the hunts, and ironically mocks the strenuous and dangerous sport that the King calls “recreation”. From Madhavia, Sakontala’s friends hear about the recovered ring, and that the King is now dismayed at her disappearance.
Kanna’s confidante brings the King a large painting of Sakontala – she herself is hidden behind the large canvas. The gods have determined that she must not see her beloved again until she can be sure that the King really loves her. With the concealed Sakontala, Duschmanta now sings a love duet. The King is tormented by guilt, the chorus fears for his sanity, he asks Sakontala and the gods for forgiveness and Sakontala feels his love. Convinced of the sincerity of the two young people, the High Priest Kanna steps forth. In an aria he teaches them the all-conquering power of the gods, and finally he allows Sakontala to show herself to the King. In a great choral finale the young lovers fall into each other’s arms.
About Franz Schubert's opera "Sakontala"
During the autumn of 1820, Schubert started working on a large-scale romantic opera in three acts (and with partly spoken dialogue) for soloists, choir and orchestra. The text was based on the classical poet Kalidasa’s drama "Sakontala", and a friend of Schubert (professor of physics Johann Phillip Neumann) wrote the libretto. For unknown reasons Schubert never completed the opera. In the standard literature on Schubert this fragment is usually referred to as a minor, totally incomplete torso.
During the summer of 2001 the Finnish "cultural entrepreneur" Antti Sairanen decided to investigate the possibility of "rescuing" one of Schubert's numerous unfinished works for the stage by attempting to produce a performable version. Among his choices, "Sakontala" (because of the quality of the original Kalidasa text) became a preferred item.
In the spring of 2002 he contacted me with this general idea, and we decided to have a closer look at the Sakontala fragment. Sairanen managed to obtain a copy of the fragment from the international Schubert society in Tübingen. One of the ideas discussed was to attempt a "rendering" of Schubert’s unfinished music combined with new music composed by me - accepting the inevitable stylistic "clash" as a virtue.
To my amazement, however, the "fragment" proved to consist of more than 400 pages of unknown music by Schubert in his own hand. The fragment consisted of pages with 16 staves, organised as an orchestral score. Schubert had fully written and composed the vocal parts with text. But only very rarely and sporadically did he write accompaniment, hint at orchestration or give harmonisation etc. Clearly he was writing a kind of "shorthand" and intended to fill in all the remaining music later. A few notes here and there would do to support his memory. Some measures remain totally empty. Approximately midway in the work, however, he suddenly stopped composing, never to resume the work. Possibly he had doubts about the dramatic potential of the libretto.
Hardly any other great composer left so much music unfinished as Schubert. Many hours of music by him still collect dust in archives and libraries, and an unknown number of manuscripts were never registered or are still considered lost. With a strange twist of luck - and through the persistent interest of Antti Sairanen - Dr. Aigner, the intendant of the Musiksammlung der Wiener Stadt-und Landesbibliothek suddenly discovered the full Neumann libretto in an antiquarian bookseller's and transferred this to a generally readable form.
Slowly discarding the idea of "stylistic clash", I realised that the part of the libretto which Schubert finished made a dramaturgically meaningful whole. Schubert’s fragment ends, strangely, with a movement that resembles a "finale". By moving certain scenes from the finished first act to the unfinished second act a dramatic unity could be obtained, creating an opera which would last about two hours in performance.
The work to reconstruct the score would obviously be time-consuming and require a rather unusual combination of historical, theoretical and compositional ability and insight. The interpretation of Schubert’s writing (notably his text in "Gothic" handwriting), the interpretation and decoding of harmonic structure and the full orchestration of the score did appear to me to be possible, however. The aim was never to "compose like Schubert", but to use his fragment as the sole background for all technical and artistic decisions. This is comparable for instance to Deryck Cooke's reconstruction of the Mahler's 10th, or Anthony Payne's recent reconstruction of Elgar's 3rd Symphony. As will be understood, the work constitutes a combination of scholarship, analysis and artistic endeavour, but certainly mainly focussed on the latter. The value of the fact that the public thus may have access to almost two hours of unknown music by Schubert needs no underlining.
Kalidasa is often referred to as "the Homer of India" and is the most famous classical oriental poet; a poet of major importance for Goethe, among others. The text to Sakontala with its origins in a literary masterpiece makes it unique in Schubert’s oeuvre; practically all of the other libretti composed by Schubert are second rate. The play has tragic as well as comic elements, and Schubert’s opera now and again brings Weber's "Freischütz" to mind - though Schubert had no way of knowing about this work composed almost exactly at the same time.
Karl Aage Rasmussen