There are some cities that lend themselves to darkness and intrigue. Macau is one of these places. First settled by refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion in northern China, it became a fishing village and later a haven for pirates. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and built a slice of the baroque Mediterranean in South China. It was returned to China in 1999 and today it’s the gambling capital of the world.
Gioachino Rossini could hardly have asked for a better commemoration—this year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death—than this celebratory performance of his lesser-known comic one-act opera Il Signor Bruschino brought to the Macao International Music Festival by the Opéra de Chambre de Genève.
While hardly a rarity, Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) doesn’t usually rank in popularity with the likes of Aida, La Bohème or Carmen. But after a performance such as that which acted as the curtain-raiser for the Macau International Music Festival, it can be hard to understand why not. Effortlessly enjoyable, the work also contains passages of aching beauty and contains more insights into human nature than its rom-com surface would let on.
The Teatro Dom Pedro V is a gem. Built in 1860, it both looks like and is a traditional theatre, with gold-fluted columns, plaster molding and orchestra pit. It is, for better or worse (and in many ways better), small with fewer than 300 seats. One can hardly think of a more idyllic place in which to perform opera, yet Solomusica’s production of an opera buffa double bill over Easter weekend was the first there in several years.
Think hard; use your imagination. Try to remember the time when the world was not an oyster, with its pearl geolocalized on Google Maps, rated on TripAdvisor, its best sights already pre-dissected on The Lonely Planet and travel blogs. There was an era during which the world had not shrunk yet to a global playground easily explored with a smartphone and a wifi connection in hand or indeed, before planes, videos and even ballpoint pens. It was the epoch of explorers and discoveries, of years spent away from a home that less and less could be called as such. And this is the time during which Alfred Raquez wrote his travel journal, In The Land Of Pagodas, A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.
Knowingly or not, anyone who has spent much time at all on what used to be called the “China Coast” will surely have come across the paintings of the George Chinnery, an English artist active in Macau in the second quarter of the 19th century. Whatever profile Chinnery may have in the broader painterly pantheon, in Hong Kong and Macau he is the closest to an artistic native son that the Western colonial tradition has.
Macau is endlessly fascinating in no small part because it is so anomalous. Dating back to the “Age of Exploration”, it was the only Iberian possession in East Asia that survived as such into the 20th century—and two years longer than Hong Kong. In spite of all the recent development, it is still a city of baroque churches, blue tiles and black-and-white pavements; streets are “ruas”; a local Portuguese patois unique to the city still just barely hangs on.