Heaven and hell in Dasjati
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Heaven and hell in Dasjati

Heaven and hell in Dasjati
A scene from the opera Dasjati. Photo: Puriwat Charoenying

Opera Siam, with help from such heavyweights as ThaiBev and the Department of Cultural Promotion, put on excerpts from Somtow Sucharitkul's epic 10-opera cycle Dasjati (Tossachat - Ten Lives Of The Buddha) last Sunday. The production was part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of His Majesty the King's accession to the throne, and the two shows, particularly the afternoon one, were packed, auguring well for an audience for opera in Thailand.

London's Opera Now magazine recently dubbed Somtow's cycle "the most extended music drama of all time". Assuming the composer survives to complete it, Dasjati should set many new records.

One such record is for the number of soloists in an operatic ensemble. We have all heard of the sextet from Lucia Di Lammermoor but even septets are rare. In the "Tavatimsa Heaven" scene from Somtow's upcoming Chariot Of Heaven, previewed in Sunday's concert, there is an ensemble for 33 separate soloists, representing the 33 gods of Tavatimsa (davadueng in Thai). A wide-ranging array of soloists volunteered for the 33 gods, including Myra Molloy, the Thailand's Got Talent winner, Jonas Anderson, the Swedish luk thung star, and popular jazz singer Athalie De Koning. Most heartwarming of all was the appearance of royal granddaughter Ploypailin Jensen as one of the gods, Atma, or the Soul.

In Somtow's conceptualisation of heaven, the Soul, sung with grace and conviction by Ploypailin, is the centre of a huge vortex of sound and the other 32 gods whirl around the Soul, creating a kind of harmonic tsunami. Using just three chords stretched out to last eight minutes, this movement reminds one of T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world". It is one of the most original ideas in a modern opera.

Other pieces from the upcoming Chariot Of Heaven were lush as well, including a fiendishly difficult yet graceful aria sung with panache by Stacey Tappan, coloratura soprano, and a fiery one for countertenor Puntwitt Asawa, a new Thai discovery. An Australian bass sang many roles including the kings of both Heaven, Hell and Benares.

Dasjati in a sense goes beyond Wagner's synthesis of theatre, music and poetry because it adds a fourth element to the mix, that of dance. Choreographer Puwarade Wongatichat adds colours of Thai dance, contemporary dance and ballet.

The segments from the other works have been seen in Bangkok already, but it was interesting to revisit them and to see how they are starting to fit into the massive plan that Dasjati will embrace.

The chorus, staging, costumes and lighting of the excerpts from previous works seemed smoother and more polished than when the works premiered, auguring well for the finished production.

The completed Dasjati should be a beacon for opera-goers, the world Buddhist community and tourists everywhere. Five years seems a rather short time to have to wait for something of this magnitude. This reviewer hopes fervently that Opera Siam can bring it off.

Stan Gayuski is a member of the International Mahler Society and regularly writes about classical music.

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