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March 15, 2001


Eye On Bangkok: In Thailand, a Taste of Western-Style Opera

SOMTOW SUCHARITKUL, librettist, composer and conductor, has brought Thailand its first ever Western-style grand opera with a predominantly homegrown cast. But while "Madana," which had its world premiere here on Feb. 16, is based on a Thai play, the opera is overwhelmingly in the tradition of European opera.

That should come as no surprise considering the background of its creator. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Mr. Somtow has spent two-thirds of his 48 years abroad, and his second home is Los Angeles, where he is best known as the award-winning novelist and short story writer S.P. Somtow.

In 1999, Mr. Somtow was asked by a committee restoring the palace of King Rama VI to turn the classic poetic drama "Madanabhada," written by the king in 1923, into an opera. "Rama VI dedicated his five-act play to one of his queens, Indrasaksachi, who happened to be my grandfather's sister," explains the rotund and youthful-looking composer. "So I had a very personal reason for accepting the commission."

The story he was given to work with is prime opera fodder. A powerful god has transformed the young woman Madana into a rose because she spurned his affections many centuries ago. The unrequited lover-deity's curse means Madana only assumes human form once a month, on the night of the full moon. That still gives her enough time to fall in love with a married king, thus setting off a tragic chain reaction of jealousy and deceit that ends with her being condemned to eternal rosehood.

Mr. Somtow chose to write "Madana," subtitled "The Romance of a Rose," in English because "there are only a very few languages an opera can be in and play in opera houses around the world." Apart from some movements in the dance sequences and the Thai-inspired costuming and sets, the opera doesn't evoke a sense of Thainess. Nor does the title. The word "Madana" sounds exotic when spoken by Thais; they vocalize the "d" as a "t" and accentuate the last syllable. Yet Somtow wrote the score so his performers must voice it as "Madonna," which is also how he pronounces it.

"I made a conscious decision to write this music in a late romantic style that Rama VI would have had no trouble listening to in the 1920s," Somtow says. "I decided to pretend that if the great composers of romantic music -- Mahler and Strauss -- had spent a holiday in Bali, this is what they would have written when they returned home." But it seems other composers definitely came along on that imaginary Balinese vacation, among them Puccini, Wagner, Debussy, Rogers & Hart and possibly even Andrew Lloyd Weber. While some may criticize the tunes as derivative, Mr. Somtow's orchestration is excellent.

The principals -- Madana (Stacey Tappen), her lover King Jayasena (Lars Mellander) and his jealous wife Queen Chanti (Barbara Smith-Jones) -- were imported from the U.S. Of the three, only the Juilliard-trained Ms. Tappen, who joins the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March, could be considered world-class. Her stunning coloratura soprano transcended the bad acoustics of the hall and was the only voice that was understandable without the supertitles. The baritone Ralph Schatzki, an expatriate attorney living in Bangkok, also performed credibly -- and audibly -- in his dual roles as Madana's guardian and Jayasena's duplicitous adviser.

A large-scale dramatic opera using a local corps de ballet, junior choir and opera chorus has never before been attempted in Thailand. Funding wasn't locked in until late last year, making for an almost impossibly tight production schedule. Despite insufficient rehearsal time, the normally rag-tag Bangkok Symphony Orchestra actually came out sounding reasonably professional. The production team also set a local benchmark for set design, supertitles (bilingual) and program material (also bilingual). These may be standard elements in international playhouses, but they remain rare in Thailand.

Though some of the local audience slept through the third act of the two-and-a-half hour spectacle on Feb. 17, most seemed to enjoy it. "Perhaps Thai people who have never seen opera before will like it," commented Col. Parinya Thavichaigarn, a Bangkok physician with firsthand experience of European opera. "But I didn't find enough emotion in the characters or the music." Mr. Somtow maintains that both the original Rama VI play and his own operatic adaptation ooze emotion and passion, but other opera aficionados echoed Col. Parinya's comments concerning the static staging and music.

Chris Craker of Black Box Music was in Bangkok to record the opera on CD for his London-based label. He believes some of "Madana's" problems are fixable: "With a really world-class cast and orchestra, it might be different," he says.

That Mr. Somtow assembled so many disparate elements into a reasonably cohesive whole is testimony to his enormous energy and enthusiasm, as well as to the quintessentially Thai knack of creating order out of apparent chaos at the 11th hour. Staging an event of this magnitude in Thailand, even for only three nights, constitutes a major achievement. Assuming funding can be arranged, the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco has tentatively reserved a week in July for "Madana's" American premiere.

Copyright 2001 Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell