Monday, June 13, 2016

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Shalimar the Clown' gives musical wings to a story of conflict rooted in disputed ground

Shalimar (Sean Panikkar) contemplates how to avenge his betrayal.
The congested car culture of Los Angeles sprawls across land once thought of as paradise, just as Kashmir still has some claim to that designation. In "Shalimar the Clown," an opera based on Salman Rushdie's novel given its world premiere Saturday by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, both milieus are irreversibly tainted -- one by overdevelopment, the other by endless religious and political strife stemming from the 1947 partition of colonial India.

In the prologue and epilogue, black-and-white videotape loops present the LA clutter of freeway, palm trees, and miles of lights as backdrop overhead while a chorus sings loudly of the urban environment thousands of miles distant from the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. That's where the story of the title character and his beloved, a Hindu dancer named Boonyi, develops. Los Angeles is an essential frame for a revenge tragedy that sprouts and develops on the Indian subcontinent.

Jack Perla, composer, and Rajiv Joseph, librettist, have fashioned a theater piece that heightens the novel's essential conflicts, an achievement confirmed by Rushdie's public statements about the opera. Historically, opera enhances stories loaded with characters' drives to fulfill their deepest wishes. "Shalimar the Clown" advances from the promise of fulfillment to a landscape of dashed hopes and the protagonist's mission to avenge Boonyi's desertion of him by killing the rakish U.S. ambassador who vowed to help her career advance and polluted the mixed marriage.

Perla's music has a lavish variety of sound, with three keyboard instruments in the pit, plus sitar and tabla, in addition to the usual orchestra. His vocal writing, usually heightened to underline the intensity of the title character, favors lengthy phrasing for which orchestral support is often oblique. Tonality shifts but is never seriously undercut; it is fluid and responsive to the dramatic situation throughout.

Melodic lines have a seductive way of making ornamental features also serve as essential to melody. This blend of straightforwardness and sinuous indirectness suits the mismatch between the characters' reality and what they wish for. Conductor Jayce Ogren held masterly sway over the elaborately layered instrumental and vocal textures; the rhythmic impetus, particularly in the choruses and the dance sequences, was always strongly profiled.

Sean Panikkar, a tenor with a sturdy command of lyrical and heroic qualities, gave menacing, wounded stature to the role of Shalimar. His description as "the clown" turns out to be massively ironic, stemming from his origin as a performer in a Kashmiri folk-theater troupe. His aspirations toward mastery of the tightrope specialty have comic overtones in the resistance of his Muslim family, but his father, played by Thomas Hammons, supports him.

Shalimar's impetuous attraction to Boonyi, a Hindu, turns out not to have any Romeo-and-Juliet difficulty attached to it, as the idyllic village rejects a lovelorn schoolteacher's attempt to blackmail the couple filmed in flagrante delicto. The community exiles the plotter by endorsing the mixed marriage in the name of the Kashmiriat -- the symbolic assertion that regional identity surmounts religious division. Geoffrey Agpalo portrayed Boonyi's defeated suitor with a kind of soaring pathos that almost aroused one's sympathy for his hapless quest. Dismissing him, vociferous declarations of  Kashmiriat were among the choral splendors at the premiere.

Andriana Chuchman exceeded reasonable expectations of sensuous allure, steely resilience, and vulnerability in the role of Boonyi. Her dancing didn't require virtuosity to be effective, especially given the canny lack of cliché or excessive artifice in Sean Curran's choreography. Her singing combined dramatic heft with melting lyricism in a manner that approached Panikkar's, but with the difference that her character's victimization has fewer avenues for redress than the tenor's.

Newlywed touring dancer Boonyi captivates the U.S. ambassador.
"The Iron Mullar" regards Shalimar doubfully.
Shalimar's bloody-minded transformation to a knife-wielding terrorist, who is cashiered by his leader, the "Iron Mullah" Bulbul Fakh (Aubrey Allcock) for insufficient religious motivation, was fully credible. His long-delayed revenge, whose outcome is efficiently covered in both prologue and epilogue, never seems dawdled over for the sake of dramatic tension. It is fully engaging at all points, and remains justifiable, given the destruction of his home village (stunningly choreographed) and the ambassador's seduction of Boonyi in a smolderingly staged New Delhi tryst.

Baritone Gregory Dahl was smooth and commanding as the philandering envoy, Max Ophuls. Used to charming everyone he meets, Ophuls seduces the ambitious Boonyi with methodical ease, given her desperation to widen her artistic and personal horizons. The opera is full of soliloquies that seem meant to be overheard: Ophuls' unapologetic self-description contrasts movingly with the weary defensive maneuvering of Peggy, his wife, who in Katharine Goeldner's performance made clear the lengths she is willing to go to exact her own payback for Max's indiscretions. Another such duet of parallel monologues puts extra pathos behind the young couple's emotional and physical separation, and it provided the premiere's most stunning example of the rapport between Chuchman and Panikkar.

All the characters who add weight to the story are well-established musically. Perla and Joseph have structured the work so that choruses fill in the social backdrop in the two main settings. The Los Angeles Ophuls has retired to and the only home familiar to his self-centered daughter by Boonyi (also played by Chuchman) appears as crucial to Shalimar's belief in his destiny as the Kashmiri village where everything began for the young lovers. Through costuming and lighting, the village has a richness that feels close to a good dream, with just a few hints of the bad dreams that eventually overwhelm everything.

Secondary characters in the village are well defined, so that the nurturing yet limited environment helps explain both Shalimar's initial satisfaction with his lot and Boonyi's certainty that her approved marriage to a Muslim in her home village has closed all other doors to her. In a Shangri-La threatened since partition by Hindu-Muslim conflict, however, she is strongly convinced that the wider world is more attractive and will surely compensate for the attendant dangers of going there.

Through music, spectacle, and the keen interplay of domestic and international strife, "Shalimar the Clown" allows the audience to feel the grip of those dangers.  Characters with incompatible wish-fulfillment fantasies attempt to realize them under tragically unfavorable circumstances. As so often in successful opera, coherent musical and dramatic design makes every jarring contrast contribute to a satisfying whole. "Shalimar the Clown" deserves a long life.

[Photos by Ken Howard]