SEATTLE — It is hardly an easy task to transform a 367-page best-selling novel with multiple characters and plot turns into a three-hour, two-act opera. And at the world premiere run of composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos’ third operatic collaboration, A Thousand Splendid Suns, some creative choices worked far better than others.
The opera, seen at its second performance on Feb. 26, was commissioned by former Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang and brought to fruition by current general director Christina Scheppelman. At its heart lies Khaled Hosseini’s eponymous 2007 novel about life in war-torn Afghanistan. The title A Thousand Splendid Suns derives from a 17th-century ode to the Afghan city of Kabul: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
The libretto painfully details the suffering of women during a 27-year period of social upheaval and patriarchal oppression in Afghanistan (1974-200l). Mariam (mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain), an illegitimate 15-year old, is forced by her father to marry Rasheed (baritone John Moore), a 45-year old shoemaker who lives in Kabul. Rasheed becomes increasingly controlling, violent and abusive as he forces Mariam to hide her face in public and debases her after three miscarriages fail to produce a child.
Five doors down, Fariba (mezzo-soprano Sarah Colt) and her husband Hakim (bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) welcome a daughter, Laila (soprano Maureen McKay) to their loving household. Fourteen years later, after the Soviets are pushed out by oppressively patriarchal tribal warlords, Laila falls in love with young Tariq (tenor Rafael Moras). In Act Two, shortly after Laila and Tariq make love, he and his family flee to Pakistan. After Laila convinces her parents to leave as well, they die in a bomb blast. Rasheed rescues Laila from the rubble, forces Mariam to nurse her back to health, and then decides to marry her. Laila, secretly pregnant with Tariq’’s child, is deceived into believing that Tariq is dead and reluctantly says yes. When she births her daughter, Aziza, she pretends that Rasheed is the father.
After bitter fighting, the two wives bond. As the Taliban solidifies its power, the women try to flee. Rasheed discovers them, beats them mercilessly, and forces them to return home. During the next five years, Laila bears Rasheed’s son, Zalmai (boy soprano Lorenzo Jose Boado alternating with soprano Grace Elaine Franck-Smith). In the final, climactic scenes, Tariq returns. Rasheed learns of Layla’s plans to escape with Tariq and tries to kill her. Mariam intercedes, kills Rasheed, and convinces Layla and Tariq to flee Afghanistan with the two children while she remains to face execution, alone, at the hands of the Taliban.
Silver, who saw the novel’s operatic potential, reached out to Kitsakos before gaining permission from Hosseini to adapt A Thousand Splendid Suns into an opera. After spending the last six months of 2013 studying Hindustani music in Pune, India, she got to work. More than nine years later, after a pandemic-imposed premiere delay of 35 months and Seattle Opera’s regime change, Silver and Kitsakos’ opera about regime change, patriarchal hegemony, and the suffering of women finally reached the stage of Seattle’s McCaw Hall.
Silver incorporated authentic ragas, harmonies, modes, bansuri (Steve Gorn), and tabla/daf/dholak/Tibetan bowls (Deep Singh) into her orchestral score. Kitsakos, in turn, embraced narrative form when he distilled the novel’s 27-year period (1974-2001) into two acts of five scenes each. Despite increasingly impassioned playing by musicians of the Seattle Symphony under conductor Viswa Subbaraman, the opera’s ploddingly episodic first act rarely allowed sufficient time for characters to develop or the audience to identify or sympathize with them. Silver often seemed unable to transform narrative into compelling music. Beyond some beautiful interludes before and between scenes, she saved her most moving and thrilling music for the far more interesting second act. The most moving of the opera’s two love scenes between Laila and Tariq arrived dismayingly late in the game.
Stage director Roya Sadat, in her first non-film project, and set designer Misha Kachman created a rotating set on which multiple locations were depicted. As costumed stagehands pushed the turntable round and round, some of Act One’s scenes were so short as to seem cartoonish. In one instance, the audience stared at a red door for perhaps half a minute before the set rotated again.
Equally puzzling was the decision by lighting designer Jen Schriever to cast most of the opera in dim light. As dim as Hosseini’s story may be, the combination of dreary lighting, whirling scene changes, here-again, gone-again characters, and a mostly prosaic first act resulted in a noticeably thinned-out post-intermission audience.
It’s a shame because in Act Two, Kitsakos devotes extended scenes to the main characters, and Silver’s music responds with thrilling arias. Upon Tariq’s unexpected return, the love duet was enrapturing. At the performance I saw, parts of the audience, increasingly frustrated and pent up, burst into cheers when Mariam killed Rasheed.
The ending, however, was problematic. Although Hosseini’s novel describes Mariam’s penultimate act as muttering a prayer to God from the Koran after “a sensation of abundant peace… washed over her,” it does not describe her as transcendent. Instead, the third part of the four-part novel ends with the sobering words:
“’Kneel here, hamshira. And look down.’ One last time, Mariam did as she was told.”
Yet, as Mariam knelt surrounded by her executioners, she was bathed in a virtually fluorescent halo of near-blinding white light that intensified until it all but consumed her. Presumably, it represented the “bursting radiance of a thousand suns” described in the novel’s final part — unset by Kitsakos — with which Mariam continued to shine in Laila’s heart after her death. But to Western sensibilities, the glowing Mariam appeared incongruously similar to a thousand portraits of the Virgin Mary. Cinematic in the classic Hollywood manner? Yes. Successful? No.
Most of the cast was exceptionally strong, with the men uniformly excellent and the acting believable. As Laila, former Seattle Opera Young Artist McKay sang as beautifully as Moras, whose Tariq was graced with an irresistible mix of Italianate and Latin passion. Sewailam, too, was a gift: His Hakim sounded appropriately kind and loving. But while Moore sang the evil Rasheed with his characteristic unforced warmth and fetchingly mellifluous tone, Mushegain portrayed his long-suffering wife in a voice that was too often thin. Perhaps she sounded better on opening night at the first of two consecutive performances with only 15 hours between them. Regardless, at the Sunday matinee, there was a glaring disconnect between the voices and characters of the two leads.