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Review: 2 Murderous Men in 2 Operas About Killing for Politics

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Sean Panikkar in the title role of “Shalimar the Clown,” at Opera Theater of St. Louis. (Photo: Ken Howard)

St. LOUIS — Macbeth’s weapon of choice is a dagger: long, thin and apt for plunging into a sleeping man’s chest. Shalimar’s is a hunting knife that can gut a cafe guest in broad daylight and looks shockingly like those used in the Islamic State’s execution videos.

These chilling props appeared in two strong, unsettling productions I watched on successive evenings here at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis: Verdi’s “Macbeth” on Thursday, a day after “Shalimar the Clown,” a new opera based on Salman Rushdie’s novel about love and innocence lost against the brutal backdrop of sectarian violence in Kashmir. That work, commissioned by the company from the composer Jack Perla and the librettist Rajiv Joseph (best known as a playwright), was elegantly directed by James Robinson.

The current season here also includes lighter fare like “La Bohème” and “Ariadne auf Naxos.” But with the shock of the recent massacre in Orlando still in my bones, I experienced “Shalimar” and “Macbeth” as a dark double bill that demonstrated opera’s ability to force a listener to contemplate uncomfortable questions. Among them: What makes a boy from a nice family turn jihadist?

In adapting Mr. Rushdie’s sprawling epic for the stage, Mr. Joseph cut out much of the novel’s magic realism, its baroque genealogies of mystics, astrological conspiracies, snake curses, witches and banquets. The story is now boiled down to a Kashmiri “Romeo and Juliet”: Shalimar, a member of a troupe of acrobats, is Muslim; Boonyi, the beautiful dancing girl he falls in love with, is Hindu. At the start of the opera, their village is an example of multiethnic harmony, led by a tolerant council of elders. When a predatory schoolteacher tries to blackmail Shalimar and Boonyi with evidence of their sexual indiscretion, the council sends him packing and arranges for the lovers to be married instead.

But Boonyi, yearning for more, feels trapped by the rushed arrangement. A suave American ambassador, Max, comes to town and is captivated by her dancing. She senses an escape route. They become lovers, but when she bears him a daughter, Max’s wife swoops in and sends Boonyi back to her village, which has since declared her dead. Shalimar, meanwhile, falls in with a terrorist group and dreams of killing both Max and Boonyi. That obsession leads him to Los Angeles, where he has to confront Boonyi’s daughter, India, now grown.

Mr. Perla, a noted jazz pianist, has created distinct styles for the opera’s two settings. In the Kashmiri scenes, the addition of a sitar and tablas injects South Asian color into the orchestra textures. The nervous vibrancy of that music contrasts with the cool shimmer of the Los Angeles scenes, with suspended dissonances that evoke film noir. The conductor Jayce Ogren led an assured and fluid performance.

I would have liked more genuinely out-of-the-box composing, like the sharply drawn duel of wits between Boonyi (sung by the intelligent, beguiling soprano Andriana Chuchman) and the cunning, blackmailing schoolteacher (Geoffrey Agpalo). Repelling his advances, she switches from song into konnakol, the Indian art of vocal percussion, hurling volleys of rhythmic syllables at him like pepper spray.

There can’t be many opera singers able to pull off such a scene as convincingly as Ms. Chuchman. She turned in a bravura performance as the impulsive, sensuous, bracingly honest Boonyi (doubling as her daughter, India), her dancing as beautiful and idiomatic as her singing. She stood out in an overall excellent cast that included Gregory Dahl, his baritone smooth with Max’s wolfish charm and easy power.

As Shalimar, the tenor Sean Panikkar demonstrated versatility and stamina, his voice supple and bright in the earlier lyrical exchanges, taut with a glint of hysteria as jealous fury took over. The mezzo Katharine Goeldner brought a sharp edge to the role of Peggy, Max’s wife. The bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock had alarming gravitas in the role of the Iron Mullah, who, noting the fanatical energy of the newly conscripted Shalimar, utters what is perhaps the most chilling line in the opera: “For a man like you, there will always be plenty of work.”

The Opera Theater of St. Louis justly prides itself on its stellar chorus, and in both “Shalimar” and “Macbeth,” this ensemble of young aspiring soloists carried much of the musical weight. The company is also committed to performing operas in English, and here the translation of “Macbeth,” by Jeremy Sams, did much to advance its immediacy. For me, it also revealed the connections between the two operas, especially in the two female leads. For if Shalimar is undone by Boonyi’s intense yearning for more, for wanting out, Lady Macbeth sets off a murderous chain of events for much the same reasons: wanting more, wanting up.

Under the confident musical direction of Stephen Lord, the “Macbeth” cast turned in an urgent, vocally solid and dramatically splendid performance. Lee Blakeley directed the effectively gloomy staging. The baritone Roland Wood sometimes strained to bring equal parts flexibility and power to the title role but demonstrated keen acting instincts. Julie Makerov brought a searing intensity to the part of Lady Macbeth that largely made up for a certain lack of finesse and articulation.

Robert Pomakov added an acutely taut performance as Banquo, while the heated plangency of Matthew Plenk’s Macduff established him as a tenor of considerable promise.

But the success of this “Macbeth” ultimately came from the sense of individual voices’ being woven inextricably into the whole, just as the tragedy and relevance of this opera and of “Shalimar” stem from the interconnectedness of the personal with a larger — tribal or geopolitical — order.