Somtow’s chariot halfway to Heaven

A scene from Somtow Sucharitkul's 10-part opera epic 'DasJati'. Photo/Siam Opera

A scene from Somtow Sucharitkul’s 10-part opera epic ‘DasJati’. Photo/Siam Opera

The Nation
Janice Koo
July 18, 2016 1:00 am

Work proceeds on history’s most ambitious opera cycle, and there’s every indication of glorious success

Ii seems to have happened overnight, but Somtow Sucharitkul is at the halfway point in composing his 10-opera epic “DasJati” (“Tossachat – Ten Lives of the Buddha”), collectively touted by trade publications as the “biggest opera of all time”. It will be, too – provided that the composer survives to realise his extraordinary ambition.

Opera Siam’s compilation of scenes from the first five installations in the cycle – staged at the Thailand Cultural Centre on June 25 and 26 in honour of His Majesty the King’s 70th year on the throne – afforded a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the more unusual highlights from Somtow’s fevered imagination.

Presented once again in wondrous fashion were the shipwreck and angelic rescue scene from “Mahajanaka”, the animals in the forest mourning the death of “Sama: The Faithful Son”, and the temptation of the Death-God from “The Silent Prince”, as well as the wittily electrifying Baby Dragon Dance from “Bhuridat”.

These musical dramas were performed in Bangkok over the past four years, but most interesting of all was the “sneak preview” of the next entry, “Chariot of Heaven”, from which the audiences at the Cultural Centre were treated to the scene “Tavatimsa Heaven”.

One of the problems in setting these 10 beloved Jataka tales of the Buddha’s incarnations to music is the sheer variety of storytelling techniques involved. Some of the stories are intimate and simple. Others have complicated, generation-spanning plots, and “Chariot of Heaven” derives from one of the latter. It’s based on Nimi Jataka, the story of King Nemiraj, who was so noble that the gods invited him to preach to them in Heaven.

It will be interesting to see how Somtow ultimately copes with this Jataka, since it is virtually without a plot, and yet 84,000 generations pass by within its first few pages. In place of the usual conflict that drives drama, this tale offers a tour of Heaven and Hell.

Knowing he had no plot to rely on, Somtow has resorted to a stunning array of musical devices. There is the lush orchestration that includes Tibetan bowls, an Indian tanpura and even a theremin. There are the edge-of-your-seat vocals. The god Agni, sung by Stacey Tappan, has some of the toughest, wildest coloratura passagework ever heard in an opera, and the American diva brings it off with elan.

And, for the entry into Heaven, Somtow has conceived a musical effect that is surely Guinness Book of Records material. The Davadueng heaven of Buddhist cosmology is populated by 33 named gods. To represent this, Somtow wrote the operatic ensemble number with 33 solo voices, a remarkable feat given that the biggest ensembles in opera tend to be sextets.

Finding capable singers for such a monumental grouping would be daunting for any opera company. Somtow enlisted an eclectic team including Purcell School-trained Khun Ploypailin Jensen, the royal granddaughter, who gave a touching account of Atma, the Soul. Other notable non-opera gods were luk thung star Jonas Anderson, as the wind god, jazz songstress Athalie de Koning as the God of Mind, and “Thailand’s Got Talent” winner Myra Molloy as a star goddess.

Somtow’s vision of Heaven combines the Buddhist ideal of stillness (there are only two chord shifts in eight minutes) with exotic colouration. It’s a bit like an oriental transformation of the opening of Wagner’s “Rheingold”. The stage and costumes are white – the 33 gods, garbed in an array of costumes that owe as much to Mount Olympus as Mount Sumeru, dance in an intricate slow-motion clockwork. One visitor from France was heard to remark on the way out, “If this is Heaven, I’m not afraid of death anymore.”

Whether a vision that has begun with such ambition can in fact be sustained over a span of 10 works has yet to be tested in the history of music. Even Wagner’s Ring Cycle has boring parts, as any but the most devoted Wagnerites will admit. Based on this mini-sampler, though, it looks as though Somtow plans to combat this danger by propelling the action and laying on the colour at an accelerated, cinematic pace. It’s a “Spielbergian” view of opera. Perhaps with works such as these, opera can begin grabbing some of the movie business’ market share.

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