Opera’s beloved but well-worn old warhorses give us the luxury of telling ourselves, “It’s a sad story, but it happened back then, over there,” which makes it easy to escape unscathed into the bright lights of the lobby after the performance. Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (through March 11) provides no such reassurance.
Many years in the making, the opera, which opened Saturday night, brought lyrical, beautiful music to a poignant tale on the McCaw Hall stage. It follows Mariam, an Afghan woman, from innocent childhood to unhappy middle age, when she forms a joyful bond with her husband’s second wife, Laila, under Taliban rule.
One of traditional opera’s potentially vexing characteristics is its tendency to gloss over chunks of plot in favor of leisurely lingering over a few select snapshots in time. This production goes in the opposite direction. Staying faithful to the Khaled Hosseini book on which it is based, the staging, directed by filmmaker Roya Sadat, moves briskly. But composer Sheila Silver (who grew up in Seattle) and librettist Stephen Kitsakos could have cut some of the narrative elements in favor of letting us spend more time basking in the opera’s most powerful musical moments.
While a market scene in the first act tries to inject levity, the rich, warm love duets — both between Laila and her love interest, Tariq, and between Mariam and Laila — bring happiness more organically, and they end before we’re ready to let them go.
In darker scenes, Silver effectively evokes menace with urgent notes that grab like an icy hand on the back of the neck.
Given the lack of an opera tradition in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s intolerance for both women and music, it may be a long time before this opera can feature voices of Afghan people themselves (though it was made with a number of Afghan cultural consultants in various roles); this cast was almost entirely American. With the difficult task of playing the central character over decades of a woman’s life, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain changed physically and vocally from a hopeful young girl to a vulnerable young woman to a middle-aged woman whose stabbing high notes showed exasperated weariness. Her transformational soaring final aria gave the opera’s ending a satisfying intensity.
Despite the women-focused nature of the plot, the male voices also shone. As Tariq, Rafael Moras’ honeyed tenor blended beautifully with the soprano of Maureen McKay’s Laila during their delicate love scene, one of the opera’s musical highlights. Baritone John Moore brought a larger-than-life presence to the villainous husband, Rasheed.
Showing the years of work she put into making the opera sound true to its setting, Silver’s music deftly meshed traditional South Asian instruments with the orchestra and the voices on stage. Brief solos from Deep Singh’s resonant drums and Steve Gorn’s haunting bansuri flute sometimes floated across an otherwise silent theater, reminding us of the story’s place and time.
The set, partly projection but mostly physical, was a realistic portrayal of earthen houses crumbling under war and poverty. A rotating central section served as the main backdrop, and its frequent turns gave the opera’s pacing some of its whirlwind feel. Lighting was particularly effective, as sunsets and sunrises closed days and brought about new ones.
It was hard to escape the deep sadness of the subject matter, which would have stung less if the opera had premiered at a time like the one when the book was written — when Afghanistan, as well as women like Laila, had more reason for optimism. But the opera’s final shimmering notes remind us of the power of sacrifice in the quest for a better tomorrow.
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