Much contemporary art has been yoked to addressing injustice or oppression. It’s a surprisingly difficult feat to accomplish well in our social media-fueled Age of Outrage. Injustice-as-story can be reduced to a cartoon of sound and fury signifying little and satisfying mostly for those who want outlet to vent.
More complicated (and rewarding) is finding the small details in a story that amplify bigger themes. The Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini attempted this with his 2003 best-selling novel “The Kite Runner,” exploring the relationship between fathers and sons. In 2007’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” he turned his focus on mothers and daughters, with equivalent villain and a selfless act of friendship. The backdrop here is oppression of women under a medieval patriarchal culture given fresh lift by the brutal Taliban. But the story itself is about relationships and love and resentment, building slowly layer upon layer. In other words, just the fodder for the operatic stage.
And thus composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos’ adaptation of Hosseini’s story, the product of a ten-year project commissioned by Seattle Opera and given its world premiere last week (it runs through March 11). It’s a haunting, atmospheric work full of lush evocative music rendered in technicolor orchestrations inflected with Afghanish flourishes.
It’s the story of two women – Mariam and Laila, neighbors born a generation apart. Mariam is given by her estranged father into an arranged marriage at age 15 to the petty Rasheed, a much older man. Laila, born to neighbors on the same block, falls in love with a boy Tariq, who escapes with his family to Pakistan. After her parents are killed when a rocket hits their home, Laila is taken in by Rasheed, who tricks her into believing Tariq has died. Laila becomes Rasheed’s second wife, to the consternation of Mariam, who is jealous of the much younger teenager. The two later become friends after Laila defends Mariam from Rasheed, and Mariam ultimately makes a heroic sacrifice so that Laila can escape with Tariq, who has returned from Pakistan. See? Classic opera.
The first act, like the book, slowly establishes the characters and their relationships. Silver’s music is evocative, like a movie score colorizing the story and directing the emotional energy. This comes at the expense of actually hearing the voices at times. The lush orchestral writing wraps so thickly around the singers that it is often difficult to make out what they are singing – the opera is in English, but I found myself glued to the supertitles a good part of the time. Ms. Silver’s music is a Porsche – even at idle you feel the power under the hood.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is directed by Roya Sadat, a distinguished Afghan movie director, and she directs this stage production with a movie-maker’s eye. That is, the dozens of scenes each get their own camera focus and their own set tableau, rotated on a stage turntable. The sets, largely depictions of modest Kabul house interiors, are so drab and literal that they can’t keep up as the story evolves, even as the turntable goes round and round and round. Does that seem an unfair criticism? I mean it in the sense that the mundane backdrops do little to enhance the story even as they distract with their gratuitous rotations. But then, perhaps that’s the point – however nuanced the story, the background keeps intruding.
Karin Mushegain does a terrific job evolving Mariam from tentative teenager to embittered middle-age, and Maureen McKay as Laila shines as the optimistic and resourceful Laila. John Moore’s Rasheed underplays the villain side in favor of frustration and disappointment, making him a character of more complexity. Rafael Moras’ Tariq was an excellent partner for McKay in their big Act I love duet.
Maryam, Laila, Rasheed and Tariq are caught in circumstances they neither control nor even really understand. Rasheed is a brute, and cruel, but he’s also an unhappy and frustrated man with little control over his own circumstances, so he chooses to take it out on the women whom he does control.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” spends little time railing against injustices; they are simply the reality one has to survive.
In the end, Mariam makes the ultimate sacrifice in a long beautiful soliloquy in which she reconciles her choice to save Laila as a kind of redemption from a life over which she had little choice. “I see joy,” she sings. “I feel peace.” Her clarity turns an act of resignation into one of transcendence and empowerment. In doing so, Silver, Hosseini et al draw the intractability and horror of a long historical oppression and the innocents victimized by it into sharp relief.