On April 24th at Boston University’s Tsai Music Center, Musica Viva premiered Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen, an ambitious work of music theater by composer/librettist Shirish Korde. The story is based on the incredible biography of Phoolan Devi, a lower-caste woman from Uttar Pradesh turned bandit leader turned Indian politician. The cast of about a half dozen singers and 20-plus dancers, along with a small ensemble of six Western and two Indian instrumentalists, was conducted with authority by Viva’s music director Richard Pittman.
The work was conceived as a “multi-media chamber opera” with both Western and Eastern musical and visual influences; the 21st-century conceptual equivalent of a Gesamtkunstwerk. However, in this production by Lynn Kramer, who also served as co-librettist and co-choreographer, dancing emerged above the rest of the arts as the most convincing and evocative dramatic device. Though supposedly syncretic, the choreography here was more South Asian than North American (Kramer’s co-choreographer was Prachi Dalal, also one of the solo dancers), a factor that very much worked in its favor. Phoolan’s life, filled with sadness, violence, abuse, and power struggles that ultimately ended with her assassination, resulted in a multi-faceted and emotionally fraught narrative that would be a challenge to express adequately in any medium. However, full advantage was taken of the Hindu dancing tradition’s enormous capacity for powerful and subtle storytelling. There were some stunning ensemble numbers, such as the police station scene in which the dancers engaged in the visual equivalent of phase-music. The love scene between Phoolan and Vikram, a shadow-play-inspired duet behind a backlit canvas, was tender and moving. And in general, the dancers who portrayed Phoolan at various stages in her life were able to do so to provocative and, at times, devastating effect.
Unfortunately, the other media did not quite measure up to the power of the dancing. Korde’s music demonstrated the difficulties inherent in attempting to merge the classical traditions of India and the West. Indian music uses the drone as the sonic canvas on which to paint its musical colors and therefore does not allow for the harmonic motion that gives Western music its drama. Similarly, Western modes are far too simple for the subtleties and complexities that make Raga so compelling. As a result, the melodic gestures, especially in the instruments, end up sounding like undirected noodling, and the overall trajectory of the music is circular, resulting in an unsatisfying sameness throughout. Korde’s inability to overcome this admittedly daunting musical conundrum was perhaps the main reason for the score’s emotional distance as well as its failure to capture the arc of the story.
There were, however, some remarkable musical moments. Despite his general difficulty with amalgamation, the composer was, on occasion, able to bring the two traditions together effectively: a thrilling percussion duet (accompanying an equally thrilling dance) for tabla and various Western drums was played with great energy by Aditya Kalyanpur and Robert Schulz; and the opening and closing scenes made striking use of the oddly beautiful mismatch of timbres from vocalists Elizabeth Keusch and Deepti Navaratna. There were also some lovely moments in general, such as the haunting Yamuna River scene; and though the mixture of live and pre-recorded music often created a sonic imbalance, the overall effect could at times be mesmerizing.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of cultural cross-over in the opera is the method of storytelling itself. The tale unfolds as a series of tableaus in a style clearly inspired by Hindu epics, punctuated by interview scenes taken directly from an Atlantic article set in recitative style with sitar accompaniment. Though the production might have been better served by more interesting videography — as it was, the images projected on the back of the stage ended up being more like moving wallpaper than anything else — the overall dramatic effect of the narrative approach was fascinating.
In fact, “fascinating” is probably the best word to describe this work in general. Though not wholly satisfying, it did offer fine examples of what does and does not work when attempting to meld the theatrical arts of disparate cultures.