â€˜Shalimar the Clown,â€™ â€˜Ariadne on Naxosâ€™ and â€˜Macbethâ€™ at Opera Theatre Saint Louis
The world premiere of an opera based on a Salman Rushdie novel is topical, literary and theatrical.
Shalimar, a Muslim tightrope walker and clown, and Boonyi, a Hindu dancer, are teenage performers in a Kashmiri folk theater troupe; their home village of Pachigam is a paradise where Muslims and Hindus coexist peacefully. Caught in a sexual indiscretion, they are rushed into marriage rather than punished. Intended as a celebration of religious tolerance, the union is also a trap for Boonyi, who wants more out of life. She is easily seduced by the predatory U.S. ambassador, Max Ophuls, who promises her everything, but abandons her when she becomes pregnant. Shalimar, enraged at Boonyiâ€™s betrayal, joins the Muslim jihadists fighting against the Indian army. His work as an assassin is just practice for his twin goals in life: to kill Max and Boonyi.
Mr. Josephâ€™s eloquently spare text leaves plenty of space for Mr. Perlaâ€™s music to tell the story. The jangly, icy opening scene in 1989 Los Angeles, where Shalimar accomplishes one of his goals, dissolves into a luxuriantly tonal language for Kashmir in 1964. The aria in which Shalimar falls for Boonyi channels 1950s musicals; so does the choral affirmation of community unity, or â€œKashmiriyat.â€ Even the negative forcesâ€”the teacher who tries to blackmail Boonyi, the Iron Mullah who interrupts the weddingâ€”donâ€™t sound discordant. They probably should have.
Andriana Chuchman was a poignant Boonyi, capturing her strength and complexity (she also held her own as a dancer); Sean Panikkar made a vivid Shalimar, hardening from a sweet, love-struck clown into a bitter, knife-wielding fanatic. Gregory Dahl brought a thoughtless sense of entitlement to Max; Katharine Goeldner was tough and determined as his endlessly betrayed wife, who callously takes Boonyiâ€™s child. Supporting standouts were Aubrey Allicock as the Iron Mullah and Elliott Paige as the leader of Pachigam. Jayce Ogren was the sensitive conductor.
Allen Moyerâ€™s spare set artfully used a catwalk and a turntable for the cinematic scene transitions; Greg Emetazâ€™s projections suggested the luxuriant greenery of Kashmir and the chaos of Los Angeles; James Schuetteâ€™s costumes deliberately made it difficult to tell the difference between Muslims and Hindus; and Christopher Akerlindâ€™s sunny lighting of paradise darkened as the show went on. James Robinsonâ€™s clear direction and SeÃ¡n Curranâ€™s terrific choreography (including a sextet depicting the rape of Pachigam by the Indian Army) seamlessly connected the big chorus scenes and the intimate moments, drawing the parallels between personal and community tragedy.
Opera Theatreâ€™s season also included Straussâ€™s â€œAriadne on Naxos,â€ sung in an effective English translation by Tom Hammond, directed by Mr. Curran on a simple, traditional set by Mr. Schuette. The four capable principals were tenor AJ Glueckert, impressive in the punishing role of Bacchus; So Young Park as a pert Zerbinetta; Marjorie Owens as an opulent Ariadne; and Cecelia Hall as a youthful Composer. Rory Macdonald was the restrained conductor. However, the high points of the evening were the moments when Harlequin (John Brancy) and the other three men of Zerbinettaâ€™s troupe (Erik Van Heyningen, Benjamin Lee and Miles Mykkanen), attempting to cheer up the deserted Ariadne, not only sang, but danced Mr. Curranâ€™s ambitious choreography. They didnâ€™t persuade her, but the audience had fun.
The companyâ€™s first production of Verdiâ€™s â€œMacbethâ€ benefited from the idiomatic conducting of Stephen Lord, but its leads fell short of the necessary dynamism. Roland Wood worked too hard as Macbeth; Julie Makerov sounded more petulant than demonic as his bloodthirsty spouse. Both singers relaxed and did their best work in their final arias. Robert Pomakov was a growly Banquo. The production, directed by Lee Blakeley, was hit-and-miss. Alex Eales created a properly gloomy, bare-bones set, with sliding panels and a stormy backdrop; Mark Boumanâ€™s fur-trimmed costumes for the Scottish thanes gave them a nicely savage vibe. There was lots of blood. The cloaked witches sang well, but their spells were all constructed with sticks. And the final apparition that terrifies Macbethâ€”Banquoâ€™s kingly descendantsâ€”was a group of barely visible infants. The English translation by Jeremy Sams sounded clunky and called attention to itself, rather than letting the propulsive musical rhythms do their job.
â€”Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.