Shalimar the Clown

Aubrey Allicock’s Bulbul Fakh with Sean Panikkar © Ken Howard 2016
By Henry Stewart | June 21, 2016 | St. Louis

FURIOUS TABLA PLAYING and a modern-dress chorus immediately set Shalimar the Clown apart from the rest of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s standard-rep season. The opera, which received its world premiere on June 11 at the Loretto–Hilton Center, is part of the company’s “New Works, Bold Voices” initiative, which commissions American works based on contemporary source material—in this case, Salman Rushdie’s sprawling 2005 novel, which hops between ’80s L.A., ’60s Kashmir, Vichy France and points in between to explore how a lovestruck Indian–Muslim tightrope walker became an American chauffeur turned assassin.

Composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph open the show where most such tragic operas end: with a death, in this case, à la Carmen, a murder by knife. Perla borrows musically not from Spain, like Bizet, but from South Asia, blending the timbres of its instruments, including a sitar, into the orchestration while maintaining a contemporary-classical idiom, tonal or not as the drama demands. With the assistance of conductor Jayce Ogren, the music sounded Eastern but not orientalist—the influence felt organically integrated, so subtle that later I heard audience members express disappointment that there wasn’t even more sitar.

Rushdie’s novel lends itself to music theater, especially the scenes in Kashmir, a colorful but serious setting of traditional performance and historical tumult. Director James Robinson filled it with dance, song and circus, especially vivid in Seán Curran’s choreography, James Schuette’s costumes and Christopher Akerlind’s colorful lighting, which often bathed the stage in green. Shalimar is a subcontinental Romeo and Juliet in which an appeal to shared regional identity triumphs briefly over religious division. It includes in Act I a rejection of fundamentalism, set by Perla in soaring choral music. It contrasted with the cynical call to arms for Muslims in Act II, whose bitterness was hard to swallow unless it swallowed you.

The story also plays on the Orpheus myth, with the American Ambassador acting as Death, who steals the hero’s wife. This Orpheus doesn’t retrieve his Eurydice from the Underworld—instead, he hunts her down and kills her, her lover, and anyone else he can, from the first Indo–Pakistani War to the American West Coast. It’s an Orfeo of the twentieth century, as if there could be no artistic redemption after World War II—no god left alive to be persuaded to clemency by the sweetness of Orpheus’ lyre. Shalimar feels rooted in the operatic tradition it acknowledges and subverts (it’s hero is a jealous clown!), despite an anecdote that the company’s general director, Timothy O’Leary, shared before the premiere: Rajiv Joseph agreed to write the libretto, hung up the phone, and Googled, “what’s a libretto?”

Joseph, a playwright best known for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (whose 2011 Broadway premiere starred Robin Williams as the title cat), neatly compressed Rushdie’s novel for the stage in Act I, retaining much of its plot and themes without being their slave. The story loses some of its complexity and thus its depth, but Perla compensated, letting the music fill in the blank spaces, integrating reflective arias into the propulsive plot with the finesse of Puccini.

In the title role, Sean Panikkar continued to position himself as one of the stars of his generation. And, as far as I can imagine, this is his ideal role. Panikkar naturally possesses the requisite boyish charm, the goofy naïveté, for the young Noman, as well as the acting skill to darken it as he transforms into the killer Shalimar. His voice is unassailable—firm, sturdy and clear, and he employs it with maximum dramatic versatility. As his wife, Boonyi, soprano Andriana Chuchman was fiercely committed, impetuous and yearning, with a brash tone to match. She’s consumed with desire, like Carmen, but has to learn that factory-girl’s confidence; they both end up murdered for it. Chuchman could be dark and somber, almost scary. But she also sang Boonyi’s daughter, India, employing more softness and sweetness, highlighting the generational gap not just through costuming but also tone.

As the American ambassador, Max, Gregory Dahl showed off a beefy baritone in the Scarpia-like role, seducing a willing Tosca eager to escape her Cavaradossi and his provincialism. Katharine Goeldner, as Max’s wife, was movingly wounded by his infidelities. Of the rest of the large cast, Geoffrey Agpalo, as a perversely voyeuristic schoolteacher, stood out with awesome strength, impeccable control and a range of real emotions, from lust to shame. Aubrey Allicock was sinister and imperious as the Iron Mullah, who brings devastating factionalism to Kashmir. Shalimar the Clown felt topical and thus urgent in a way that other very good recent American operas, such as Cold Mountain or JFK, have not. Contemporary relevance gives good music-drama an edge.

—Henry Stewart