Bangkok Post's review of Suwana Sama

by Michael Proudfoot

Celebrating His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday, Somtow Sucharitkul's latest opera Suwana Sama, The Faithful Son received its world premiere at the magnificent Suryadhep Music Sala of Rangsit University on Dec 5, with three subsequent performances on Sunday afternoon and evening and Monday evening. With international and Thai star performers, the opera proved both thoroughly enjoyable and deeply moving, with a stunning and magical ending.

The opera is the latest in Somtow's ambitious project to write 10 operas portraying the Ten Lives of the Buddha. The eventual intention is to perform all 10 operas in the space of a week, in a musical extravaganza to rival Wagner's Ring Cycle performances in Bayreuth. Indeed "operas" may not quite be the right word, for Somtow has pioneered a form that he calls "ballet-opera", where the ballet is integral to the whole structure and drama of the piece, and not -- as in French and Italian 19th century operas -- just an interlude in what is otherwise a traditional opera. Suwana Sama is the fourth of the operas to be completed. Like the second and third pieces of the cycle to be performed, Mahajanaka in 2014 and Bhuridatta earlier this year, it is also of this ballet-opera format.

The Suryadhep Music Sala is a highly impressive addition to Bangkok's arts and music venues, and ideal for Somtow's productions. It is an 1,100 seat auditorium, which nevertheless seems more intimate than many others of a similar size, with a huge stage, both wide and deep, and wonderful acoustics. It is the special project of Dr Arthit Ourairat, president of Rangsit University, who is to be congratulated in bringing to realisation a venue which will be the envy of any university in the world.

The opera's style is familiar from the preceding operas in the cycle: a compelling mixture of traditional Thai music (including extensive use of percussion), with an accessible Western lyricism, at the same time distinctively Somtow's own, but with easily discernible post-Wagnerian influences, including Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Hollywood film music, and more atonal composers such as Alban Berg. The opera is scored for a comparatively small group of musicians, divided into two simultaneous chamber orchestras, one on either side of the conductor. This exposes the individual players who are therefore almost all playing as soloists, but the youthful Siam Philharmonic were up to the task and played with considerable virtuosity. Somtow is fortunate to have such an outstanding interpreter of his works as the conductor Trisdee Na Patalung, who once again led the orchestra and singers with virtuosity.

Somtow conjures another breathtaking ending. Sama is fatally wounded by an evil king, hunting for trophies. The dying Sama does not reprove the king, but asks him to summon his blind parents. As the king realises the full horror of his action, a statue, which has been onstage throughout the entire opera, suddenly comes to life, and reveals herself as Bahusodari, the messenger of the King of Heaven. In an amazing single aria, hauntingly accompanied by solo violin, she tells the king he has killed the Bodhisattva. As the king goes to bring Sama's parents to his dead body, the animals of the forest (the ballet dancers) mourn Sama's death, to the doleful strains of the khlui, the Thai flute, brilliantly played by Somnuek Saeng-Arun. As his devoted and deeply religious parents grieve over Sama's dead body, he comes back to life, cures his parents' blindness, forgives the king, and enjoins the villagers and animals to "be faithful to your parents and you shall find happiness", and the chorus reflects that "happiness has returned to the world through the devotion of a faithful son". It is a sublime ending, leaving many in the audience with tears in their eyes. Perhaps the most amazing performance was by the American soprano Cassandra Black. For Suwana Sama, Black, as the statue, must sit completely immobile on stage for 70 minutes, before coming to life to sing her one and only aria -- a sensational showpiece, dazzlingly sung.

In contrast, Zurich Opera's bass, Damian Whiteley, doubles the contrasting roles of the King of Heaven and the evil Piliyakkha, King of Kashi. Whiteley was in commanding form in both roles, dominating the stage with his powerful presence and resonant bass voice. Another who made a great impression was Kaleigh Rae Gamaché. She, too, doubled roles as an Apsara in heaven and as the Queen of Kashi, singing with a pure, controlled line: a very musical and attractive performance.

Thailand's leading countertenor Jak Cholvijarn reprises his role as the Bodhisattva, in the title role of Sama, the very model of the "golden boy". With his gentle manner and pure voice he was the incarnation of the faithful son.

In the remaining principal roles there was impressively strong support from the young Thai singers Puntwitt Aswadejmetakul, a very promising counter tenor, and Ashiraya Supaluknaree, as Sama's devout parents, and from Siam Opera regulars JC Manar Kaewtae, Areeya Rotjanadit, Yotsawan Meethongkum and Chaiporn Phuangmalee, all in multiple roles. A notable feature of the production was the excellent work of the chorus, who sang and acted with conviction.

The virtuoso ballet troupe, whose imaginative dance is so crucial to the plot, were choreographed by Puwarate Wongatichat. Another regular was the lighting designer, Ryan Attig, whose imaginative work transforms the stage in the rapidly changing scenes, first village, then magic forest, then King of Kashi's Court. The set is by San Francisco designer Dean Shibuya, and the brilliant and colourful costume designs are by Natthawan Santiphap, with material specially created by Pasaya, Thailand's leading fabric company.

If Somtow's dream of a Bangkok Bayreuth is to become a reality, it is vital that others in positions of influence and power in Thailand acknowledge its artistic and cultural importance, and that careful thought and support is given to bringing about its achievement.