Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review: Impeccable performances highlight the world premiere of "Shalimar the Clown" at Opera Theatre

The Act I wedding scene
Photo: Ken Howard

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For those of you out there who think of opera as a lot of stuff by dead guys, consider this: of the 81 composers whose works have been performed during Opera Theatre of St. Louis's 41 seasons, 31 (38%) are alive and well. This season, in fact, OTSL presented the world premiere of a brand-new opera that it commissioned: Shalimar the Clown.

Adapted by Jack Perla (composer) and Rajiv Joseph (librettist) from Salman Rushdie's novel of the same name, the opera sets a tale of doomed love and revenge against the larger canvas of the war in Kashmir and the rise of fundamentalist terrorism. The title character, a performer in a Kashmiri bhand pather (traditional folk dance) troupe in 1964, falls deeply (and quickly) in love with the beautiful dancer Boonyi. She, alas, is Hindu and he's Muslim, so when their affair is discovered the elders in their village of Pachigam are scandalized. Instead of driving the pair apart, however, they insist that they marry immediately in a joint ceremony that celebrates the religious diversity of their town and of Kashmir as a whole.

Sean Panikkar
Photo: Ken Howard
That makes Shalimar happy but leaves Boonyi feeling unfulfilled. She loves him, but yearns for a bigger role in the world outside. Unfortunately, she decides to pursue her dream by allowing herself to be seduced by the American ambassador, Max Ophuls. When she has a child, he abandons her, his wife takes the baby, and Boonyi is dumped back with the villagers who reject her and force her to live apart. Shalimar, meanwhile, has turned his sorrow into anger and become an assassin for an anti-Indian terrorist group headed by Bulbul Fakh, the "Iron Mullah."

As the decades pass, war comes to Pachigam, Boonyi's daughter grows to womanhood in the USA, and Shalimar plots his revenge. Needless to say, nobody lives happily ever after.

Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi
Photo: Ken Howard
For me, the best things about this production were the stunning performances by a truly remarkable cast, James Robinson's clear and theatrically apt direction, the wonderful singing by Robert Ainsley's chorus, and the superb job conductor Jayce Ogren and the St. Louis Symphony musicians did with a complex and dense score. Seán Curran also deserves a shout-out for choreography that perfectly blended both Western and Indian movement while creatively advancing the opera's narrative.

The opera itself left me a bit cold, partly because Mr. Joseph's libretto seems to take for granted a degree of familiarity with the novel which I did not possess and which should not, in any case, be assumed when creating a stage adaptation from another medium. As it is, the characters of Shalimar and Boonyi (along with major secondary characters) lack a depth on stage that they presumably have in the novel.

Gregory Dahl and Katherine Goeldner
Photo: Ken Howard
Mr. Perla's score has many striking and even beautiful moments, such as the West Side Story-ish scene in which Shalimar and Boonyi first meet, and it does an impressive job of incorporating Indian rhythms, harmonies and even a couple instruments (sitar and tabla) without becoming obviously imitative. Unfortunately, Mr. Perla's standard technique for his most emotionally charged scenes seems to consist of having everyone sing and play as loudly as possible, producing a kind of aural mush.

Still, it was thrilling to see tenor Sean Panikkar and soprano Andriana Chuchman in such bravura performances of those very challenging roles, singing this very difficult and melismatic music. Ms. Chuchman doubled in the markedly different role of Boonyi's daughter India, which was even more impressive.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons, who was so impressive in La Bohème this season, cut a sympathetic figure as Shalimar's father Abdullah, while baritone Gregory Dahl and mezzo Katherine Goeldner were appropriately repellent as the unethical Max Ophuls and his seriously co-dependent wife Peggy. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, a former Gerdine Young Artist, was an imposing Iron Mullah.

So the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown got a splendid performance and, thanks to set designer Allen Moyer and costumer James Schuette, it looked great. I just wish I had found it more compelling. It was, in any case, a reminder that opera is a living, breathing art form and that Opera Theatre continues to do its part to keep it that way.

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