Set in an approximation of Bombay (Mumbai) and Kashmir, the opulent score employed about 56 orchestral players and 16 choristers. The innovative combination of blocking for the accomplished soloists and projected phantasmagorical backdrop allowed the story to unfold vividly. The supertitles were essential, given the tightly moving plot, in which the famous storyteller, Rashid, AKA the Shah of Blah (sung by bass-baritone Stephen Bryant, a Grammy nominee), loses his storytelling gift when his wife, Soraya (mezzo Heather Gallagher), runs off with a neighbor (Mr. Sengupta, who also is the arch villain, Khattam-Shud, played by Neal Ferreira). Time then stops for their son, Haroun (clearly and plaintively sung and acted by soprano Heather Buck, who created the role at the New York City Opera production), who is then impelled solve issues of life and death as well as to succeed in bringing his parents back together. But not so fast—the multifaceted stories within stories are brocaded with flashes of magic, joy, wrath, jokes, war, death and immortality.
The score ranges from plaintive to fortissimo+, providing challenges to each orchestral section. There are 17 scenes in the first act, 9 in the second, with no overture. The pace is brisk and challenging for the players. Rose masterfully directed and shaped the efforts of the many well-known Boston instrumentalists. The ensemble singers sang to particularly great effect, in some ways, a bit like a Greek chorus. All the soloists have many unusual intervals to hit, yet the opera’s lyricism differs from much of the composer’s oeuvre. In short, this lengthy yet engaging opera contributes unconventional and inventive composition to a spellbinding tale containing many tales.
Rushdie wrote the novel as his second marriage was dissolving, likely intending his then 11-year-old second son, Zafar, to read and reread it as he grew up; indeed, the novel, and the opera, begin and end with a poem that is an anagram for the son’s name. Wuorinen’s 12-tone serial approach succeeds for this multi-storied narrative, in which poetry and the notes embrace other cultures, particularly music of the Indian subcontinent, while paying homage to a variety of composers, such as Dukas.
One of the most relevant themes, articulated by the cuckolding neighbor Sengupta and then by Haroun, is “what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Indeed, the power of language, the imagination, and its ramifications is front and center these days. In another way, political power struggles embedded in the work seem more than on target, especially played out in the costume, acting and mannerisms of gangster-politician Snooty Butto, admirably sung and portrayed by tenor Matthew DiBattista, whose purposefully Trumpian facial expressions, blond wig, blue shirt and rumpled red tie were even better than the POTUS imitators of The Capitol Steps when they came through Boston in November.
Other soloists included David Salsbery Fry (Butt-Hoope), Brian Giebler (Iff, the Water Genie), Wilbur Pauley (Mali, King of Gup), Michelle Trainor (Oneeta, Princess Batcheat), Charles Blandy (Prince Bobo), Banga (Thomas Oesterling), Goopy (Steven Goldstein) and General Kitab (Aaron Engebreth). They all seemed to be having a great time, both on stage and in the halls before the opera, during intermission and after. We felt fortunate to have such an array of excellent Boston-based soloists.