Opera review: Sensitive reincarnation of Kannagi

Kannagi - The Jeweled Anklet is John Sharpley's second opera with libretto by Robert Yeo, but was first presented in 2009, before their much-acclaimed collaboration Fences which had a much longer gestation. Its first performance took place at the Wedding Hall of the Sri Mariamman Temple, which was totally apt given its ancient Tamil settings.

The story is based on the 1,500-year-old legend of Sillappadikaram by Prince Illango Adigal. Kannagi, whose unfaithful husband Kovalan is unjustly executed for theft after selling off one of her jewelled anklets, reaps a harvest of death and destruction on the city of Madurai. Her deification unites all facets of womanhood, restoring peace and balance in the universe.

This new production of the six-part chamber opera directed by Christopher Jacobs may be said to be a reincarnation of the original. By performing at The Arts House's Play Den in near-complete darkness, all traces of its Indian origins were removed. Kannagi was no longer constrained by time or place, becoming instead an Everywoman for whom history, geography and ethnicity becomes irrelevant.

While Kannagi was previously played by a single soprano, her complex personality is now represented by three women, soprano Akiko Otao, dancer Susan Yeung and pianist Bronwyn Gibson. The Overture, The Burning Of Madurai on the piano was atmospheric and stirring, befitting the epic that unfolded. Gibson's handling of the accompanying music and interludes was excellent, and very often one veered towards Sharpley's always tonal and coherent music when the visual senses went on overload.

Otao's singing captured the nuances of Kannagi's long-suffering personality, drifting between song and oration, with the full gamut of expressive and narrative devices. Her anguished face for much of the melodrama remains firmly etched in the memory, while her alternating fluid and contorted movements had a shadow and mirror in the athletic Yeung.

Unfortunately not all the words were caught with clarity, and the absence of a libretto or synopsis was a stumbling block for first-timers. One would have to find the complete libretto in the collection The Best Of Robert Yeo, published by Epigram Books.

The lack of a male presence, either Kovalan or the King of Madurai, was no longer an issue in this three women tour-de-force. The hour-long opera closed with Restored, Returned, Regained, as Otao's voice was overdubbed manifold, and the final apotheosis of Shantih, Shantih, Shantih which provided a big bang of an ending with cosmic forces in alignment.

Sharpley promises more operas to come. Given his proven track record and penchant for lyricism, he is likely to be the most important opera composer operating from Singapore.

stlife@sph.com.sg