‘Shalimar the Clown,’ ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ and ‘Macbeth’ at Opera Theatre Saint Louis

The world premiere of an opera based on a Salman Rushdie novel is topical, literary and theatrical.

Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar. (Photo: Ken Howard)

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 Boonyi’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. Joseph’s eloquently spare text leaves plenty of space for Mr. Perla’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 “Kashmiriyat.” Even the negative forces—the teacher who tries to blackmail Boonyi, the Iron Mullah who interrupts the wedding—don’t sound discordant. They probably should have.

 But as matters get worse, the music grows darker, and less tonally centered. Act II turns from Boonyi’s “wanting” to Shalimar’s revenge, and the political overtakes the personal. “Winter Has Frozen Us Over Again,” a heartbreaking, mournful duet for Shalimar and Boonyi, carries with it the death of idealism, and the last chorus of “Kashmiriyat” is a dirge, as Pachigam is wiped out. Mr. Perla’s subtle use of tabla and sitar grounds the characters in their South Asian heritage; so does his occasional melismatic vocal writing.

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 Boonyi’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 Moyer’s spare set artfully used a catwalk and a turntable for the cinematic scene transitions; Greg Emetaz’s projections suggested the luxuriant greenery of Kashmir and the chaos of Los Angeles; James Schuette’s costumes deliberately made it difficult to tell the difference between Muslims and Hindus; and Christopher Akerlind’s sunny lighting of paradise darkened as the show went on. James Robinson’s clear direction and Seán Curran’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 Theatre’s season also included Strauss’s “Ariadne on Naxos,” 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 Zerbinetta’s troupe (Erik Van Heyningen, Benjamin Lee and Miles Mykkanen), attempting to cheer up the deserted Ariadne, not only sang, but danced Mr. Curran’s ambitious choreography. They didn’t persuade her, but the audience had fun.


The company’s first production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” 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 Bouman’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 Macbeth—Banquo’s kingly descendants—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.