DAN NO URA (2014)


Review of “Dan no Ura”, Thailand Cultural Centre, 11th and 12th August

The World Premiere performances of Somtow Sucharitkul’s “Dan no Ura” in Bangkok on 11th and 12th August confirmed Sucharitkul as one of the most intriguing of contemporary opera composers. The opera deals with the famous Japanese sea battle of 1185, the final battle of a war in which the Taira clan, close relatives of the Imperial Family, were defeated by the Genji, led by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, whose half-brother became the first Shogun. It is a wonderful piece that should have the world’s major companies lining up to stage.

It is written for large orchestra and multiple soloists. While not a pastiche of Japanese music, there are Japanese touches, such as extensive use of flute and wooden blocks, both so characteristic of traditional Japanese drama. The opera is, however, completely suffused with a Japanese aesthetic, including both the spare elegance of the sets (designer, Dean Shibuya) and the gorgeous costumes (Nattawan Santiphab).

Film-like and episodic in construction, it is a continuous two-hour Act of constantly shifting scenes. It is rhythmically complex and demanding for both singers and orchestra, but easily accessible, with many passages of deeply romantic lyricism.

There was not a weak link in the international cast. At the centre of the drama are the Imperial family and the warring generals. The powerful and defiant matriarch, grandmother of the boy Emperor, who is prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of honour and family, was imperiously sung by the Mexican mezzo Grace Echauri. She personified an unbending sense of duty, her voice soaring gloriously above even the loudest orchestral passages. Nancy Yuen as her daughter engagingly expressed a mother’s protective love for her child. The major role of the Emperor was taken with winning charm and dramatic poise by nine year old Rit Parnichkun, who caught exactly both the Emperor’s innocence and, at the same time, his acceptance of his fate. He was afflicted with vocal problems on the first night, but with medical help overnight, had recovered completely for the second performance.

The Emperor is helped to understand his destiny by two ghosts. The first is the ghost of his beloved cousin and playmate, Lord Atsumori, sung with ethereal beauty by the counter tenor Jak Cholvjarn. Atsumori tells the Emperor not be afraid – “It is only death”. The other ghost is the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu, ancestor of the divinely-descended Imperial line. The American Stacey Tappan sparkled brilliantly in Amaterasu’s extraordinary coloratura scene – the Queen of the Night meets Zerbinetta – hitting stratospheric heights, including a top F, with nonchalant ease.

Damian Whiteley as Yoshitsune captured the conflicted general’s complex character: the war hero who nevertheless realises “the mighty fall at last, They are as dust before the wind”. Korean baritone Kyu Won Han stirred profound emotions in the role of the Teiran Lord Kumagae, wracked with remorse at having killed Atsumori, and sang the heart-breaking music with great power, style and beauty. The Taiwanese-American tenor Joseph Hu as one of the Emperor’s uncles was ringingly clear and sweet-toned, and the young Thai baritone, Saran Senavinin, impressed as another uncle. Nadlada Thamtanakom was movingly expressive as the Emperor’s nurse.

Sucharitkul was himself the director of this spectacular production. Trisdee na Patalung, Thailand’s star international conductor and Sucharitkul’s ideal interpreter, brilliantly guided the orchestra and singers through the tricky score. Thailand should be proud of the jewel that is Opera Siam. This production and their ‘Flying Dutchman’ last December are the match of those of any European opera company.

Michael Proudfoot


Michael Proudfoot is a British writer on opera and a former Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Reading in England.