Bangkok Opera may be just six years old, but it has already accomplished more than companies many times its age. Founded by present director Somtow Sucharitkul, it has mounted operas ranging from chamber works like Dido and Aeneas and Turn of the Screw to full-blown productions of Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Among other ventures, it has embarked on a Ring cycle (Das Rheingold was presented last February; Die Walküre is due in July), the first to be fully staged and produced by an Asian company. Bangkok Opera is the only company in southeast Asia operating with a full season (five productions per year). Last November it gave its third world premiere – three performances of Ayodhya (seen November 16, 18 & 19) by Somtow, who is both Thailand’s leading classical composer and its first to write a western-style opera (Ayodhya is his third).
Somtow (surnames are rarely used in Thailand) – composer, conductor, opera director, painter, designer, film director and author of nearly fifty works of horror fiction and fantasy literature - was educated at Eton and Cambridge. He then spent twenty years in Los Angeles, giving him equal familiarity with western culture as with that of his native Thailand. Hence, he is in a virtually unique position of being able to weave Thai motifs and sensibilities into his productions for Bangkok Opera. A recent Magic Flute had the Three Boys riding not in an airborne balloon but in a tuk-tuk, and his inspiration for Das Rheingold derived more from Buddhism than from Norse sagas.
Somtow composed Ayodhya as a personal tribute to the King of Thailand on the occasion of his sixtieth year on the throne. The dedication is doubly appropriate inasmuch as the present king traces his ancestry back to Thailand’s first Rama king, the very subject of the opera. Somtow himself is descended from the Rama line, being the great-nephew of Queen Indrasaksachi, wife of King Rama VI who reigned from 1910-1925.
In Ayodhya, billed as “a Ramayana for the twenty-first century,” Somtow has attempted to compress the famed Indian epic into about two and a half hours of music with two intermissions. Rama and Sita are lovers, but she is abducted by the evil Ravan. The lovers endure long separation, many trials and a bitter war before they are reunited. Yet their renewed relationship is tainted with doubt. “Only the turning of the wheel of the cosmos can heal their love,” explains Somtow, putting an eastern twist on an essentially Homeric tale. Audience members who know their Ramayana are at a distinct advantage over those who don’t, as the plot unfolds episodically and there are gaps in the English-language libretto’s story line.
Yet this defect, one common to many other operas as well, pales beside the grandeur of Somtow’s achievement. “I wanted to open up the world of the Ramayana to a new generation of young people who know nothing of Thailand’s venerable past,” explains Somtow. Despite inevitable technical mishaps associated with a new production, Ayodya remains in this writer’s memory as a work greater than the sum of its parts, a feast for both the eye and the ear, a throwback to the era of grand operas that featured stirring choruses, theatrical effects, lavish costumes, big voices, sumptuous orchestration, lyrical melodies and an aura of magic.
The principals came from eight countries. American bass John Ames impressed with his deep, ultra-low voice (down to A below the staff) as the demon Ravan, Russian soprano Marina Zyatkova gave a spectacular display of coloratura as the Golden Deer, England’s male alto Michael Chance gave a mesmerizing account of the god Ganesha, and Thailand’s own Saran Susebsantiwongse displayed an international class baritone as the monkey god Hanuman.
Director Hans Niewenhuis from Netherlands Opera Studio exploited the wide stage of the Thailand Cultural Center to impressive effect, moving the large cast about in imaginative ways while retaining fluidity of motion. He used state-of-the-art multi-media technology, some of it presumably for the first time in Thailand. His signature technique was a scrim upon which images were projected as visual leitmotifs, helping explain the characters’ inner conflicts and lending an element of fantasy to the production. Unfortunately, the scrim also obscured much of what was happening behind it, despite a sophisticated lighting design.
Like the literary source upon which it is based, Ayodhya is conceived on an epic scale. The vocal range, spread among eight principals, spans nearly five octaves. The enormous orchestra includes triple-woodwinds, virtuoso writing for piccolo trumpet, a quartet of Wagner tubas, and even a sitar and a harpsichord. Prominent parts for harp and celesta impart a glistening, sparkling sheen to much of the score. Four additional harps and bells are used for the final scene, where Rama and Sita mount the golden stairway to Ayodhya (an eastern variant of Valhalla).
Robert Markow - Opera News (New York) (Feb 1, 2007)
Hot on the heels of Das Rheingold, BANGKOK OPERA next offered a revival of Die Zauberflöte (seen on April 5 and 6), further proof that in just 5 years Somtow Sucharitkul has made Bangkok into the operatic hub of South East Asia.
The real news this time around was the operatic debut of Somtow’s protégé, the 20-year-old Thai conductor Trisdee na Patalung. If the word ‘genius’ still has any meaning in this age of rampant hyperbole, Trisdee (second names are rarely used in Thailand) is truly a living example. His study of Western classical music began only at the age of 13, yet within four years he had played the ‘Goldberg’ Variations in public, within five he had conducted the premiere of his own First Symphony, and within six he had served as repetiteur for numerous Bangkok Opera productions. Here he led the orchestra with unfailing assurance and technical control through a wide dynamic range and seamless changes of tempo and metre, achieving an ideal balance between stage and pit. There was not one superfluous gesture, rather a continuous aerial grace and buoyancy.
The cast came from four continents, but two Thais turned in the best performances. Saran Suebsantiwongse gave a portrayal of Papageno that both tickled the funny bone and touched the heart. He was beautifully partnered by Nakananthinee Worakhitanan as Papagena. Another Thai, Pitchaya Kemasingki, provided a hilarious account of a lecherous Monostatos. Sandra Partridge was a thrilling Queen of Night. Less pleasing were Vassilis Kostopoulos, who lacked the sonorous bass required for Sarastro, and Nancy Yuen, beautiful of voice, but musically inert as Pamina. Harold Grey Meers was an assured and loving Tamino in an interpretation that was more heroic than lyric. Somtow’s imaginative production, new in 2003, included numerous Thai touches. Dialogue was delivered in English (with Thai translation on screens), except for two passages where Papageno and Papagena spoke in their own language. The audience loved it. Lego-inspired sets, a riotously colourful lighting design, lavish costumes and freely interpolated dance sequences of both Thai and Western derivation were additional assets in this most successful production.
Watch the Overture here!
Opera, September 2006
Robert Markow - Opera Magazine (London) (Aug 22, 2006)
MAE NAAK PRODUCTION
Review of MAE NAAK
From “Opera” Magazine
The Bangkok Opera, which opened its first full season in September 2004, is the kind of company one would usually call a mom-and-pop operation, except in this case there’s only a pop. Formed in 2001 by the Thai-born composer and author Somtow Sucharitkul, who has spent a lifetime reconciling his Asian heritage and his Eton-Cambridge education, the company was born of the same cultural tension that has fuelled its founder’s art. Somtow, who extended the sonorities and techniques of traditional Thai instruments as a Boulez acolyte in the 1970s, turned to writing genre fiction in the 1980s, when his westernized fantasist’s eye gradually rediscovered Thailand’s rich folklore. With his latest musical incarnation in the 1990s as a neo-Romantic, those two creative sides have now fused together on the operatic stage.
Mae Naak, Somtow’s second opera based on a Thai theme, was billed in the local English-language press as “Thailand’s most famous ghost story”, though the result on stage was rather more complicated. In brief, the plot concerns a solder going off to war just as he finds out his wife is pregnant; years later, reunited with her, he eventually discovers she is now a ghost haunting others in the village. Out of civic responsibility, he rejects her in this life, hoping to reunite in the next.
While Somtow’s libretto bends this traditional tale to modern sensibilities, using flashbacks and other cinematic conventions, his music comes squarely from the opposite direction, stretching a post-Wagnerian Germanic language eastward. The composer’s unassuming description in the programme note – essentially, “Thai folk music meets the Hollywood horror movie soundtrack –” was fine for Bangkok’s bndding audiences, though more experienced opera listeners could follow a few shrewd brushstrokes of Berg and Bartók.
This production, largely reconceived and recast from the piece’s premiere in 2003, revolved smoothly around the director Henry Akina’s efficiently other-worldly atmosphere. The cast mixed a handful of promising local singers (including soprano Catherine Sam Harsono and tenor Francis Chan) with some solid young international performers (notably the sopranos Ronit Widmann-Levy, Saundra DeAthos, and Grace Echauri). As the soldier Maak, the Korean baritone Kyu Won Han made a particularly heroic showing.
Little in either the cast or production, however, detracted from the presence of Nancy Yuen, the Hong Kong-born, London-based soprano for whom the title role was written. Though she could deftly negotiate spans of more than an octave in a single phrase, Yuen was often more effective on a single pitch, investing each moment with a range of timbre that communicated on the surface an exquisite emotional depth.
— KEN SMITH
Ken Smith - Opera Magazine (London) (Jan 4, 2006)
Wagner opera holds political meaning for some Thais
AP , BANGKOK
Monday, Feb 06, 2006,Page 4
More than 120 years after his death, German composer Richard Wagner makes his operatic debut in Southeast Asia with a performance of Das Rheingold that portrays a divine Eastern kingdom humbled by greed and Western culture.
With its themes of power and political corruption, the opera could have been crafted for modern-day Asia, says the show's Thai director, Somtow Sucharitkul.
"It's all about how the gods become corrupted, so it fits," he said during a dress rehearsal a few days ahead of the show's opening night.
"Maybe we'll end up getting arrested or sued for libel," he quips, alluding to the frequent fate of government critics in this region.
Das Rheingold -- the first of a four-part series known as The Ring Cycle -- is being performed in Bangkok, with a world-class international cast and orchestra. And while none of the words or score has been changed, the production takes a Buddhist slant.
The theft of a golden ring, traditionally portrayed as a kind of Christian original sin, in Somtow's version launches the Buddhist cycle of karma, fueled by attachment or greed, that creates life and all its beautiful imperfections.
On stage, this is represented by a transformation from a timeless monochromatic Nirvana into a brashly colorful world of Western consumer goods.
In the first act, the singers wear traditional Southeast Asian royal court costumes. But by the time the curtain falls, they are wearing decadently Western attire: an Elvis-like golden jacket, a naughty schoolgirl outfit and a Hawaiian shirt that would be suit a tourist in a red light district in Bangkok.
Valhalla, the paradise that the chief god Wotan has sacrificed his soul to build, turns out to be a modern Asian metropolis.
The political implications should be clear to the audience in Thailand, where tens of thousands of people recently rallied to call for the ouster of the prime minister over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Somtow notes political parallels could also be drawn to neighboring states like Myanmar and Cambodia.
He also draws parallels between launching Das Rheingold in Asia with its original premiere in Germany 1869: the audience and performers for the most part are unfamiliar with the music.
"It's like turning the clock back 150 years," he says. "That's why it could be very exciting, despite the imperfections."
Challenges in forming the unusual oversized orchestra needed may also help explain why Asia has waited so long to see this, considered by some to be one of the West's greatest artistic achievements.
The Wagner tubas -- a large horn designed by the composer -- were obtained from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra by guest musician Hanz Pizka, who then trained local Thai musicians to play them.
Somtow managed to draft the seven harpists from Bangkok's harp academy. To fill out the necessary super-sized string section, about a dozen violinists were flown in from the Vietnam National Opera. Even so, the string section is smaller than it should be.
"We couldn't have fit any more in the orchestra pit," Somtow says.
C Hawke - Taipei Times (Feb 6, 2006)
Enslaved to Aida
Somtow and Harrell's reproduction of Verdi's masterpiece brings tears of joy and endless "Bravos!"
Somtow Sucharitkul and Richard Harrell's mind-blowing "Aida" was a production for the world stage, put together with a vision and performed with an inspiration that are rarely found at the greatest opera houses in the world. The production, with more than 200 performers, was BIG, but it was also directed with keen precision, making its gripping three hours fly by. It was full of colour, pageantry, action, red-blooded emotions and given one of the most compelling performances one could ever hope for. Bravo!
Some members of the cast took some time to warm up. I was not quite sure where things would lead for Aida (Jessica Hsing-an Chen) in Act I. But as the opera progressed her performance grew in stature, her musicality used for the most subtle tone-painting, guaranteed to strike at the essence of the soul. Aida sings of her country in "O patria mia", and Chen sang movingly, with woodwinds cool as the night to lay bare the heat of the heart.
As Aida is told that she is a slave of the Pharaohs, and not her father's daughter, Chen shows the character's suffering intensify. Aida is being told by her Ethiopian father to have her lover, the Egyptian Radames, betray his country, and if Aida's emotional wounds are raw here, Chen's powerful singing and blazing passions ensured that Radames would fall for her seduction. The orchestra slowed down, sensuous heartbeats from the strings mated with the offspring of balmy winds, and the rapture of Chen's voice ensured that Radames cannot deny her demands for the hero of Egypt to be treacherous. Bravo!
Todd Geer, as Radames, took rather longer to warm up. His famous Act I number, "Celeste Aida", fell flat, and some elements of stiffness seemed to linger until somewhere in Act II. That is when Geer managed to forget that he is a 21st-century American and began to live the triumphs and despairs of the warrior fated to die entombed with Aida, his country betrayed for love that was to come only with death. Geer's lyricism was attractive, and in act IV, his singing was not only impassioned, but his acting compelling, too. Bravo!
In the opera, Amneris is the impossibly jealous princess who may own her slave, Aida, but cannot tear Radames's love away from Aida and to have it for herself. The singing of Grace Echauri was more than stunning - love, envy, hatred were played off each other with directness, deceit, seeming sanity and ultimate madness by a voice of superb expression.
The silky smooth singing betrayed the guile in Amneris's heart even as her character attempts, unsuccessfully, to contain the false sentiment. And yet, what raw pain came from the mouth of Echauri as Amneris was tortured by the thought of the death of Radames, whose love would be hers in neither life nor death. This performance was just brilliant. Bravo!
Ralph Schatzki was Amonasro, a steely character for whom his daughter is only a means to a military end. Schatzki's singing was clear, biting, engaged and alarmingly penetrating. Schatzki's presence was a powerful one as he gave Aida a vocal flogging to make her not a woman freed from Egyptian slavery, but a serf enslaved to her father's will. Fantastic! Bravo!
Richard Harrell's production was dazzling. The action was set in Ayutthaya, rather than Egypt, and the Thai settings worked very well.
A huge chorus (which sang gloriously), dancers and acrobats exuded boundless energy, but never took the focus from the central drama, which Harrell directed keenly.
Of course, we knew we were in Thailand when the inevitable bunch of effeminate boys turned up to expose themselves for the entertainment of Amneris, but that made sense, too, given the character's impossible hormonal cravings. Bravo!
But the biggest bravo goes to the Siam Philharmonic and Somtow. The hearts of the characters may have come through their voices, but it was the orchestra that delivered its soul. The playing was clean, taut, and full of detail.
The famous "Triumphal March" fuelled by high-octane brass sounds was astonishing, made the more so by the use of offstage brass choirs (conducted by Trisdee na Patalung), bringing trumpets here, there, and everywhere. Strings were sharply disciplined to evoke a thousand feelings, while sensitive to exploring the depths of those emotions, once exposed. And the winds: just a single flute could enslave the whole Thailand Cultural Centre to the belief that Verdi's extraordinary fiction was in fact true to life.
This was music of a greatness surely more splendid than anything Bangkok has ever heard before. Bravo!
Jonathon Richmond - The Nation (May 1, 2005)
Highs and Lows: Recent Orchestral Performances in Bangkok Offered High Talent, Tasty Morsels and Low Moments
Somtow Sucharitkul was clearly inspired as he led the Bangkok Opera through Mozart's unfinished C Minor Mass last week at Assumption Cathedral, and in a command performance for Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana.
The conductor was taking his cue from Mozart's great operatic works in directing his instrumental and vocal performers. Somtow had said earlier that he found the same sublime sensuality in Mozart's music of religious devotion as in the composer's most profound expressions of human love.
So it was that he led the Bangkok Opera in a colourful and dramatic reading of the mass, where the music came through as an expression not only of the soul - Bach achieved that - but of the deepest levels of human feeling as well.
The highlight of last Tuesday's performance came as soprano Nancy Yuen sang the "Et incarnatus", which depicts the divine conception of Christian belief.
The movement presents the greatest music of the mass: the music rises to the highest levels of Mozartian rapture, comparable in its grip to the most exhilarating. Mozart used woodwinds to depict the deepest of human emotions in opera. A key to the power of the music is the separation of orchestral voices: the flute, oboe and bassoon speak with their own personalities, and the effect only works if there is clarity.
Somtow was sensitive to this requirement. He trained his orchestra in the performance at Mozart's time, and the music came through magically. Yuen's singing was of astonishing beauty, with particularly glorious flute solo work underlining the music's spiritual depth.
There were many other wonderful moments. The orchestral opening was dark and dense, expressive of mystery. The "Dominus Deus" was expressively sung by sopranos Catherine Sam Harsono and Soontharee Srisang.
The "Qui tolis" came through with a sense of urgency, with incisiveness from the strings and depth from the choir, conveying a mournful pleading of sadness combined with a glory that reached celestial heights. The "Sanctus" saw great precision in the choir, and the brass instruments responded as their own chorus, entering into passionate discourse with the vocal ensemble.
Still, all was not perfection. Tenor Sigve Vidnes fell short of the mark with singing that was less than colourful. There were times, also, where the orchestral sense of ensemble faded and there was a blurring of the edges, a problem not helped by the cathedral's reverberant acoustics.
Ultimately, then, this was not a consistently grand performance, with the musical drama expressed in highlights rather than throughout the evening. Still, there was much to cherish in Somtow's approach and all surely felt enlightened by exposure to a great work heard for the first time in Bangkok.