In Review > North America

Shalimar the Clown (6/11/16), La Bohème (6/12/16), Macbeth (6/10/16), Ariadne on Naxos (6/11/16)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

In Review OTSL Shalimar hdl 916
The wedding of Shalimar (Panikkar) and Boonyi (Chuchman)in Robinson’s staging of Shalimar the Clown
© Ken Howard/Opera Theatre Of Saint 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 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 a murder by knife. Perla borrows musically 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 moresitar.

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. An Act I rejection of fundamentalism, set by Perla in soaring choral music, 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 Orfeo for the twentieth century, as if there could be no artistic redemption after World War II—no god left alive to be persuaded by the sweetness of Orpheus’s lyre. Shalimar feels rooted in the operatic tradition it acknowledges and subverts (its 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. The biggest problem, though, is Act II, which has to hurry through the remaining narrative. (Allen Moyer’s minimal and thus flexible sets allow for easy globetrotting, enhanced by Greg Emetaz’s projections, which turn Kashmir into New York and back again.) It hits all the sad plot points—abduction, rejection, destruction and murder, on macro and micro levels—but doesn’t develop them. A story this sprawling needs three acts.

In the title role, Sean Panikkar continued to position himself as one of the stars of his generation. 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 through 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.

In Reivew OTSL Boheme hdl 916
Plumb, Evans, Haji and Smoak as OTSL’s Bohemians
© Ken Howard/Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

Unexpectedly, for such well-worn material, I was almost as shaken by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s Bohème (seen June 12). Puccini’s tale of struggling young artists was made scrappily fresh by the cast of young artists, more naturally at home in the youthful roles than many of the stars or midlevel singers you see at big houses. The young people, directed by Ron Daniels, seemed to relish inhabiting these iconic roles. 

The feeling was intensified by the English translation, which removed a layer of artifice to make the production more intimate. This was not Bohème as a museum piece of fin-de-siècle haute romance but as modern drama—more Rent than Zeffirelli, restoring some of the life the latter’s famous production has lost in the last thirty years. Conductor Emanuele Andrizzi didn’t revel in the opulence of the score; rather, he pushed it forward plainly and sincerely, making it subservient to the story. This was humble music-making, in line with the rest of the production, from Riccardo Hernandez’s simple scenery to the adorable performers.

The group of loft-loitering artists sang with similar tone, but that only made them seem more dramatically coherent. Bradley Smoak, as Colline, had an unhesitating bass that rang out over his costars’ voices. Sean Michael Plumb, as Schaunard, displayed a burnished, muscular baritone and compelling charm. Anthony Clark Evans, as Marcello, sang brawnily and acted vibrantly. Lauren Michelle, as Musetta, was a bit too cartoonish, but the character seems to call for it. Her soprano was pleasantly silvery when she didn’t push it too much.

Andrew Haji, a clean-voiced, clarion and earnest Rodolfo, offered a characterization that was felt but not put on. Hae Ji Chang, as Mimì, was sweet and guileless, mousy save for her forward voice. They did not make a grand pair, in aura or in vocalism, but that just made them more endearing, honoring the core romance of the opera. I haven’t been so moved by Bohème in years.

In Review OTSL Macbeth lg 916
Pomakov (on platform), Wood and Makerov in OTSL’s
Macbeth

© Ken Howard/Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

Macbeth (seen June 10), the company’s first in its forty-one years, was not so revelatory, but it didn’t need to be. Everyone in St. Louis seemed to agree that its star was the chorus, led by Robert Ainsley, which sang with impeccable dynamics, diction and feeling; the brindisi was so rousing that one could barely wait for intermission and a drink of one’s own. The chorus was exceptional in every offering this season, including Shalimar, but Verdi’s sophisticated writing offered its best chance to show off. 

Alex Eales’s set was effectively plain—after all, how opulent was eleventh-century Scotland?—and Mark Bouman’s costumes were standard but wonderfully detailed. Lee Blakeley’s production gave the Verdi just as much as it needed, no more (and, in the case of the rather inky lighting, perhaps not enough). The English translation by Jeremy Sams felt natural, at least when it wasn’t straining to rhyme. The most insightful element was music-director Stephen Lord’s conducting, which emphasized the score’s surprising lightness, its more whimsical and enthusiastic elements, especially in the winds and strings; he was aided by the theater’s deep pit, which favors those timbres over the brass.

Macbeth was sung by Roland Wood, who did not always handle the character’s dramatic transitions smoothly, but whose sensitive phrasings and heavy tone usually got the point across. When he confronted Banquo’s ghost, each note seemed to become more deranged, angry and terrified. He could shake the room with his bark. His Lady Macbeth, Julie Makerov, has stunning power, even more than was needed for the Loretto–Hilton Center, but her pitch was erratic.

Robert Pomakov’s characterful and textured voice made him an exceptional Banquo, as did his acting. He began the show as comically hostile but became truly shaken by the witches’ prophecies. Evan LeRoy Johnson sang Malcolm with his ringing, heroic tenor, but best of all was Matthew Plenk, as Macduff, who could follow an emotion, drenched in vibrato, from the bottom of his heart to the top of his voice, all in a single breath. His “O figli miei” sounded fresh and youthful yet appealingly old-fashioned. He has a truly unique sound.

In Review OTSL Ariadne lg 916
Glueckert and Owens, Bacchus and Ariadne in St. Louis
© Ken Howard/Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

OTSL rounded out its otherwise serious season with something sillier—a delightful Ariadne on Naxos (seen June 11). The opera is goofy and lively, if you want it to be, without being trivial—an ideal vehicle for a company that relishes young performers. Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s clever, self-aware opera pits seria against buffa, Wagner against Offenbach, and conductor Rory Macdonald juggled the competing styles without dropping either. Seán Curran’s production was classic early-twentieth-century farce, its Act I drawing room doubling as backstage; you could have performed Lend Me a Tenor on James Schuette’s set. 

Cecelia Hall employed beautiful tone and fluttery ornamentation fitting for the earnest and callow Composer. As Zerbinetta, So Young Park, in contrast, had a cleaner tone with more earthy character. She had a tiny bit of difficulty with the trickiest passages of Strauss’s comically cruel coloratura, but more often she nailed it. She was always compelling vocally and dramatically—funny and flirty, loose with the character and strict with the music. 

Her Harlequin, John Brancy, was a flexible performer of sturdy and stable voice. Matthew DiBattista, as the Dancing Master, had charisma and comic style that compensated for his pointed but low-fat tenor. Levi Hernandez had natural power, perfect for the Music Master, who’s always fighting his bosses or reassuring his artists. 

AJ Glueckert, as Bacchus, could have used a bit more helden in his tenor, but he phrased well. Marjorie Owens was shrill as the Prima Donna, in a manner appropriate for the character, and she was dignified and emotional as Ariadne, showing off a dramatic soprano, swinging for the fences and, if not always hitting a home run, at least always getting on base. Glueckert and Owens ended Ariadne on a stage blanketed with twenty or so flickering candelabra. It wasn’t extravagant, but it was exceedingly romantic. Like the rest of the season’s standard rep, it was unshowy but lovely.  —Henry Stewart 



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