OPERA NEWS - Shalimar the Clown
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PERLA: Shalimar the Clown

CD Button Chuchman, Goeldner; Panikkar, Dahl, Allicock; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus, Ogren. Text. Albany Records TROY 1695/96 (2)

Recordings Shalimar Cover 219

SALMAN RUSHDIE'S 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown, the tale of a jealous jester who wreaks vengeance on his unfaithful wife, cries out for an operatic adaptation. Leoncavallo managed to tell the same basic story in a compact seventy minutes. But this two-hour-plus adaptation of the Rushdie, recorded live at its 2016 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis premiere, is far too ambitious. Rajiv Joseph’s libretto opens like an intimate verismo tragedy set in the Himalayas, only to zoom out into a sprawling, transcontinental drama that awkwardly engages with themes of religious conflict and globalization. 

Shalimar, a Muslim performer in the bhand pather tradition of Kashmiri folk theater, is wed to the Hindu dancer Boonyi. For the villagers of Pachigam, the couple’s mixed-faith marriage stands as a testament to Kashmiriyat, a regional philosophy of cultural tolerance. However, on the eve of the 1965 Indo–Pakistani War, Boonyi runs off with Max Ophuls, the American ambassador to India. Shalimar joins a band of Muslim extremists and plots his revenge on the lovers and their illegitimate child. 

Again, it all sounds very operatic, but Joseph isn’t able to strike that Verdian balance between the personal and the political. Key details that are crucial to characterization are glossed over as we flit across oceans and decades. And the libretto is a bizarre clash of affects, with moments of intense Pagliacci passion undermined by campy song-and-dance numbers. Joseph doesn’t always treat the historical subject matter and its present-day repercussions very seriously. Complex social issues are oversimplified and rendered cartoonish in juvenile rhyming couplets. The wisecracking terrorists are in particularly bad taste, not to mention a farcically out-of-place episode in which a scrapheap assembles, Transformers-style, into an army of metal mullahs.

Jack Perla’s music is reminiscent of works by other successful American composers who are regularly commissioned by larger opera houses; like Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Adamo, he crosses Italianate lyricism with Broadway sentiment. In Shalimar, however, Perla sets himself apart from his colleagues by skillfully integrating a tinta of South Asian music. It’s not some cheap, Orientalist imitation. Perla displays a deep understanding of the Hindustani classical tradition, drawing on authentic ragas and intricate tala rhythms. Sitarist Arjun Verma is featured prominently, his swirling solo line backed in Bollywood fashion by the cushiony, unison strings of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. For the thrilling opening number, he’s joined by tabla player Javad Butah, whose motoric rhythms conjure the bustling traffic of Santa Monica. 

Perla’s score moves along with cinematic sweep, though he tends to linger on melodramatic arias. Nevertheless, his vocal writing is always exquisite, studded with Hindustani-inspired ornaments. The only problem is that the Western classically trained chorus lacks the flexibility to execute these delicate melismas, plodding through what is supposed to be a sensuous seduction scene. 

While Sean Panikkar, as Shalimar, displays a powerful, Pavarotti-like tenor, his voice isn’t suited to the role. Soprano Adriana Chuchman, by contrast, sounds as if she’s effortlessly improvising Boonyi’s long garlands of Lakmé coloratura. She’s also the only soloist to convey any character development, her flirtatious trills and suggestive glissandos giving way to sobbing, chromatic descents when Boonyi is abandoned by Max. Gregory Dahl lends his erotically charged Don Giovanni baritone to the womanizing ambassador, and mezzo Katharine Goeldner, as his wife, Peggy, embodies the archetypal evil stepmother with her icy delivery. —Joe Cadagin

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