Wagner, Thai-style

Somtow Sucharitkul took his latest opera to the spiritual home of the great composer

The Silent Prince being staged in Europe.

It was bold of Somtow Sucharitkul to take Opera Siam to Bayreuth in Germany, the spiritual home of Wagnerians, to perform the first opera of a cycle of operas that challenges Richard Wagner's monumental Ring cycle, performed every year in Bayreuth, as the world's longest opera cycle. Sucharitkul's The Silent Prince is the first of the 10 operas of his Dasjati cycle telling the "Ten Lives Of The Buddha", familiar stories in Buddhist culture. Somtow has already composed five of the operas, and hopes to have all 10 finished by 2020, ready for a complete cycle in a sort of Bangkok Bayreuth Festival.

The Silent Prince had its world premiere in Houston in 2010, and Bangkok premiere in 2012, and the two performances in Bayreuth (followed by further performances in Prague and Brno) marked its European premiere. Trisdee na Patalung conducted, and Somtow himself directed the production.

The story, as in each of the Dasjati sequence, is of one of the former incarnations of the Lord Buddha. At the opening of the opera, set in Heaven, the King and Queen of Heaven hear the cries of Chandra Devi in childbirth, and call upon Buddha to reincarnate himself as her son. The scene shifts to Benares, in India, where Chandra Devi, and her husband, the King of Kashi, and their citizens rejoice at the birth of a son, Temiya, who it is hoped will eventually succeed the King.

As Temiya approaches manhood, his father asks him to prepare for being king by taking responsibility for the execution of a criminal. But Temiya cannot take a life. Nor, however, can he disobey his father. In a dream sequence, we see the competing forces struggling in his mind. His solution is to fall silent, neither killing the man nor explicitly refusing to perform the execution. Temiya remains silent and meditative for many years, despite many attempts by the King to persuade him to speak and act. Eventually the King loses patience, and orders the execution of his own son.

In the final scene of the opera, the King's servant is digging a grave for Temiya whom he will have to execute once the grave is finished. He laments his task. Then, suddenly, (in an astonishing coup de théâtre) he hears a voice. It is Temiya, who speaks (or sings) at last. He breaks his silence, because he cannot allow the servant to commit a karmic sin by taking his life. He became silent to avoid the commission of a sin, and now breaks his silence to avoid another sin. In a most moving aria Temiya, whose voice is an ethereal high counter-tenor, exquisitely sung by Jak Cholvijarn, reveals that he is a Boddhisatva, an incarnation of the Buddha.

Somtow's operas frequently require singers to play two or even three roles, thereby also achieving certain parallelisms and connections between the roles. Thus Australian Damien Whiteley took on the roles of the King of Heaven, the King of Hell and of a procurer of women with which to tempt the silent and unmoving Temiya to action and speech, so reminding us that Buddhist gods can be both good and evil, and frequently reincarnate at human level. Whiteley, a powerful bass with excellent diction, commanded the stage in his scenes.

Thai soprano Nadlada Thamtanakom sang the roles of the Queen of Heaven, the Goddess of illusion, and a courtesan, demonstrating elaborate and effortless coloratura singing. Zion Barbara Daoratanahong was impressively controlled and sang beautifully as an apsara (an angel) and as Amba, the Queen's maid and Prince's nurse. Jak played the testing high counter tenor title role of Prince Temiya, breaking his silence only at the end of the opera with a thrillingly otherworldly extended aria.

The production made the most of the simple but effective set design by Stephanie Mielchen, helped by imaginative lighting by Ryan Attig, and the sumptuous costumes by Natthawan Santiphap and Kanokrat Ariya which provided a colourful Bollywood flavour. A distinctive Thai touch was provided by the excellent and omnipresent masked dancers, choreographed by Siripong Soontronsanor. The chorus, a combination of the Bangkok-based Calliope Chamber Choir and local German singers, were very good. The small chamber orchestra, drawn from the internationally award-winning youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta, were brilliantly directed by Trisdee na Patalung.

Somtow's complex score requires all 23 players to be individual soloists (the four violins, for example, each having their own part), and the combination of Indian traditional instruments (harmonium, celeste, tambura) with conventional Western ones, and the mixture of occasionally atonal music with Indian ragas and a romantic lyricism of sometimes aching beauty required, and received, virtuosity of the highest order. Overall, this bold venture succeeded in representing the best of contemporary Thai culture to the rest of the world in some of its most celebrated cultural centres.

Michael Proudfoot is a British writer on opera and classical music and a former head of the School of Humanities at the University of Reading.

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