Somtow delivers a samurai epic
"Dan No Ura" A candidate for the world's standard opera repertoire
Somtow Sucharitkul's eighth opera, “Dan no Ura” – which took him seven years to compose and which had its oft-delayed world premiere on Mother’s Day this month – must be considered a major breakthrough for the composer personally and also for opera by Asian composers. It’s perhaps the first Asian-composed opera that can clearly earn a place in the world’s standard opera repertoire.
The opera is set almost entirely at sea, during the naval battle of Dan no Ura in the year 1185. A traumatic event in Japanese history, it ended with the mass suicide of the imperial court. They all leapt into the sea, ending Japan’s “Golden Age”, the Heian period, which is the hallmark of Japanese cultural ideals of simplicity, elegance, harmony with nature, and the awareness of the impermanence of existence.
On opening night there were some glitches, including some rough scenery changes and serious vocal trouble due to illness on the part of nine-year-old Rit Parnichkun, who had the critical role of the young Emperor Antoku.
By the second (and for now final) night the emperor had had a miraculous recovery, the complex scenery shifts were on track and the two-hour, intermission-free opera flowed like a dream.
The production design by Japanese-American Dean Shibuya was effective, with huge ships that turned and moved about onstage, helped by Ryan Attig’s expressive lighting. The costumes by Natthawan Santiphap in particular were stunning, historically accurate, and worthy of a $5-million production at the Met in New York.
This is an ensemble piece in which there are almost a dozen pivotal roles, each of which is written with three-dimensional clarity. Particularly memorable in the initial run were Grace Echauri as the quietly authoritative grandmother, whose stirring words precipitate the mass suicide, Nancy Yuen as the conflicted Empress, and Thai soprano Nadlada Thamtanakom as the Emperor’s nurse.
Kyu Won Han played the tortured general Kumagai and newcomer to Thailand Damian Whiteley was the Genji commander Yoshitsune, presented with subtlety and a resonant deep bass.
Most memorable vocally was Stacey Tappan as the Goddess of the Sun, who has an eight-minute cameo with a coloratura of such stratospheric virtuosity that it gives the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta a credible run for their money.
But the absolute star of “Dan no Ura” was the orchestra. Somtow scores for a huge orchestra, but uses it with the precision of chamber music, with unusual effects (such as offstage piccolos to represent dolphins, a wind machine and the Japanese-inspired “sobbing flute”). A look at the score shows original touches like “scraping the strings of the piano with a glass rod” to represent the tolling of the glass bell at the Temple of Gion Shohja.
The music of “Dan no Ura” is an extraordinary achievement, a single, sweeping, symphonic construction, seamless and completely integrated. Trisdee na Patalung’s conducting of the work was exemplary, allowing the score in its kaleidoscopic colours to shine.
It seems that Somtow’s composing has reached a new plateau. The mood among the foreign critics at the premiere was one of excitement this reviewer had not seen before at an opera in Thailand. One hopes for a speedy revival and for further productions of “Dan no Ura” around the world.
Stan Gayuski is an American freelance music journalist living in Thailand and a member of the International Gustav Mahler Society. He writes occasional reviews of Mahler symphonies and new opera works.