Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Opera Theater St. Louis - 2016 (Well, 3/4 of the OTSL season)

The season is now over and again OTSL can congratulate itself on an outstanding season of four excellent opera productions, including another wonderful premiere of Shalimar the Clown.  I had the opportunity over the last month to experience all 4 productions and here are some brief comments about each of them.

Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera that I have seen online several times, but never live and never in English before.  This infectious Richard Strauss opera works so much better live.  The antics of the commedia del’arte troupe along with the excessive hand-wringing from the traditionalists in the first act capped off by the lovely “combined” performance of the second act all worked together to make this a riveting and enjoyable experience.  And add to that the fact that it was performed in English.  Now, I am not usually in favor of performing opera in English, and prefer the original language.  In fact, I feel that often performing an Italian opera in English is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but in this case it worked great.  There is so much dialogue and there is so much going on that it would have been hard to follow in German. Plus the translation was pretty good and not groan-worthy. (wish I could say that for Boheme and Macbeth, which simply did/do NOT work in English - IMHO).  The final element of this great production was of course the cast and orchestra.  The orchestra for all of the operas is the St. Louis Symphony and their playing was exquisite throughout the season (especially in Shalimar!)  R. Strauss is not a walk in the park for the orchestra but they played the score brilliantly and the conductor infused much energy that kept everything moving at a nice pace.  The cast was across the board excellent (this is true for all 4 operas – not a weak link in the bunch!)  For Ariadne I felt the stand-outs were So Young Park as Zerbinetta, A.J. Gluekert as Bacchus and then the incredible Ken Page (otherwise known to theater-goers as Old Deuteronomy in the the original Cats production) as the Major-Domo. I had not realized that until later but while viewing was completely taken by his performance.  I doubt I will ever experience another opera performance where one of the standout stars was a non-singer in a non-singing role, but he was simply outstanding.  What a great idea to cast him, he BTW is a St. Louis native, so it was a kind of homecoming I suppose and he was warmly and enthusiastically received by the audience.  I doubt that Ariadne will ever replace Rosenkavalier as my favorite R. Strauss opera, but this was a terrific performance and a joyous way to begin the season.

La Boheme is perhaps one of the best loved opera of all times.  Many people who never go to the opera have nevertheless seen Boheme.  Among opera lovers it is interesting to me to read comments about this opera, for they tend to go from adoration to intense dislike with a strong dose of “I’m so tired of it.”  And I myself have sometimes found myself at times in the “tired of it” camp, until the downbeat and then I am engaged.  It is not only a beautiful score, but it is an incredibly well constructed score.  And for me the 2nd act is a perfect gem and perhaps one of the great accomplishments of late 19th century Verismo opera.  There is always a lot going on in the 2nd act and then it all is finished off with the onstage band marching across the stage.  And it is here I’ll begin my reflections about the OTSL production. There was simply too much on and off stage movement in this act which didn’t seem to have any purpose.  If it was to simulate the flow of the crowds on Christmas Eve in Paris it didn’t work for too often the chorus would leave the principals alone on the stage only to reappear just in time to sing and then disappear again.  That just didn’t work for me.  I wanted to crowds to be teeming throughout the act.  That said the ending was great.  I always love the band and this was no exception. The kids were great and the Parpignol (Eric Ferring) was easily one of the most memorable voices in the cast – what a beautiful voice and he only basically sang one note!  The cast were all young singers and were all very good.  I especially loved the Mimi of Hae Ji Chang and the Rodolpho of Andrew Haji and they had good chemistry.  She was especially effecting in the last act.  And the Shaunard of Sean Michael Plumb was another standout, what a beautiful voice.  Lastly, opera veteran Thomas Hammons sang the joint roles of Benoit/Alcindoro and he was terrific and then (on the Wednesday I attended) he turned around and took over the much more demanding and extensive role of Shalimar’s Father in the evening performance of Shalimar the Clown.  In closing I will say that I did enjoy this performance very much.  The singers all were very committed and sang beautifully.  I found myself wiping away tears on more than one occasion, including the ending of act 2 which always (for some reason) is an emotional experience for me.

Shalimar the Clown in another in the series of commissions and world premiere operas that OTSL has given to the opera world.  And this was for me a very moving and powerful experience.  The libretto is based on a novel by Salman Rushdie (he was at the performance I attended, which was cool!).  The story moves quickly around the world from LA to the small fictional village of Pachigam in Kashmir and back again to LA, this was effectively represented in a series of excellent projections.  The story deals with the issue of religious conflict and hatred and how it is that so many young men are radicalized and seemingly so quick to accept violence.  The opera begins at the end of the story – Shalimar (Sean Panikkar) has been stalking the former US Ambassador to India, Max Ophuls (Gregory Dahl), and has managed to get himself hired as Max’s driver.  After arriving at his daughter India’s (Andriana Chuchman) for a birthday celebration Shalimar murders Max.  And then we go back to the village and get to experience Shalimar’s long slow path from a sweet, shy Indian Muslim circus performer to a hardened, hateful and bitterly vengeful, and particularly violent murderer.  Early on we meet Boonyi (also played by Andriana Chuchman), the object of Shalimar’s affection.  But Boonyi is Hindu, so the first conflict is set up – a Muslim and Hindu who are forced to marry because they have been caught and blackmailed (or he tries to blackmail them) by a slimy schoolteacher (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Agpalo).  The wedding itself is crashed by the Iron Mullah (Aubrey Allicock) who comes to condemn the pluralism represented in this bi-religion wedding.  But the community all join together to reject the hate and prejudice represented by the Iron Mullah and to reaffirm that they are all of one community and that they live in peace.  It is one of the most moving moments in the opera. 
But it cannot last, Max the Ambassador arrives and is smitten with lust by the young dancer Boonyi who runs off with him and is eventually impregnated by him.  His wife Peggy (Katherine Goeldner) keeps the child and sends Boonyi back to her village, but she has now been declared dead and finds herself an outcast.  Not only that but Shalimar is so filled with rage and that he has pledged to murder her and Max.  He joins the Islamic terrorist insurgency where he distinguishes himself as one of the most ruthless and bloody soldiers, even creeping out even the other terrorists because he is so blood-thirsty.  Eventually he makes good on his vow.  The village is destroyed by the Indian army and everyone is murdered – another incredibly powerful scene is the “Rape of Pachigam” the destruction of the village depicted by 6 dancers (3 men and 3 women) who act out a stylized by violent rape sequence.  It was hard to watch but impossible to turn away from – the music was particularly stunning here.  Boonyi manages to escape the Indian army but she meets up with Shalimar who is surveying the rubble of his home and taking note of the bodies of his parents and family and friends.  Shalimar murders her as he had vowed to do, even though I had the sense that he did it almost with regret. Regret that then fueled his determination to murder Max.  The ending of this opera is incredible.  The daughter of Max and Boonyi is a young Olympic archer named India (who knows nothing of her past or of the sordid story that brought her to life) but she finds herself facing off with Shalimar at the end, just as the lights go out.  I would like to read the ending of the book to find out how Rushdie ends this story. I am confident that India successfully defends herself, though it is left up in the air.
This was a powerful evening at the opera.  It is these kinds of experiences that keep me committed to this art form. Opera has a unique way of drawing the audience into the story through the music, and the music for this opera – composed by Jack Perla (libretto by Rajiv Joseph) – was wonderful.  I loved the score.  The orchestration included both a tabla and a sitar and utilized the winds in particular making the music both lush and stark as the story required.  I have heard that a recording will be released and I am looking forward to buying it and listening to it again.  The St. Louis symphony outdid themselves in performing this score.  The chorus of young apprentices who also took on a variety of small roles throughout the season also were especially terrific in Shalimar.  As for the leads, I said it above, this was a terrific cast from the two principals – Sean Panikkar as Shalimar and Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi/India.  Both roles require incredible acting chops and they both had it along with the vocal skills to perform the roles.  I would have to list the entire cast in order to list the excellent performances, but I have to at least point to Gregory Dahl, who was really outstanding as Max and managed to convey this complicated man.  It would be so easy to play him as a “bad guy” but I loved that Dahl’s Max was a very complex man, who is not bad, but not always good – who is self-giving and at the same time rather selfish – kind of like all of us.  And Katherine Goeldner was an effective Peggy who while the ignored wife still manages to accomplish perhaps the cruelest act in the entire story.  And Finally Aubrey Allicot as Bulbul Fakh, the Iron Mullah was terrifically and horrifyingly effective.

Lastly I want to say that the multicultural dimension of this work I found exciting and cutting edge.  We do live in a pluralistic world and we need to embrace and celebrate this.  We need to reject decisively those who would categorize and demonize other peoples and cultures and recognize that we are all in this together and we need each other. And the arts need to constantly model this and celebrate it.  This is a great step in that direction.  I truly hope to see many more productions of this wonderful opera around the country and the world.  It deserves it – but we need it!

I will post the final reflection on OTSL's Macbeth within the week.

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