Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s innovative semi-staged concert production of the complex, rich and fanciful two-act opera, Haroun and the Sea of Stories deserved more than the single Boston premiere performance Saturday at Jordan Hall. The multiple levels and nested plots of the story have so much depth that listeners need multiple iterations fully to appreciate the work. Based on the children’s novel by Salman Rushdie, with 12-tone music by the contemporary American composer Charles Wuorinen and intricate libretto by James Fenton, a renowned British poet and friend of Rushdie, this satirical 2004 work was created in the post 9-11 era, yet it is even more than relevant to our times. Opera News entitled a conversation about the New York City Opera’s opening night as a “Fearsome Fairyland;” their writer Leighton Kerner had interviewed Wuorinen and Rushdie together, and that seems apt. Gil Rose made use of all of the score’s electricity, eerie sounds, fright, joy and fancy to go along with a production replete with bright costumes, mechanical birds, water genies and beautifully bizarre beasts.
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.
The show left us with much to ponder—humor, profundity, multiplicity of meanings, and dreams to incorporate with one’s own.
BMOP is dedicated to bridging “the disconnect between contemporary audiences and contemporary music” and has become a major force in commissioning, presenting and recording modern orchestral music. Haroun fit the mission just about perfectly.
Amateur pianist and long-time music lover Julie Ingelfinger enjoys day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.
Brooke Stanton, costume designer
Rachel Padula, wigs
Amber Voner, makeup
Sall Dean Mello, illustrations
Callie Chapman, projections
Linda O’Brien, lighting design
Amanda Otten, stage manager
Gil Rose, stage direction
Kathy Whittman, production photos
Cori Ellison, supertitles