Step aside, opera and Broadway — an enticing form of musical theater from the other side of the world has landed in the Triangle. UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Auditorium hosted a performance of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute, a fascinating reworking of the W.A. Mozart opera in sparkling, rhapsodic Cambodian classical dance.
This dance form originated as a means of worship and royal entertainment during the Khmer empire, which spanned the ninth through sixteenth centuries. But tradition barely survived the destruction wrought against Cambodia's people and culture by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s: Because of the aristocratic history of this centuries-old art form, an estimated 90 percent of dancers, usually women, were killed under this oppressive regime. Sophiline Cheam Shapiro — a luminary of Cambodian dance, co-founder and artistic director of the Khmer Arts Academy, and the creator of Pamina Devi — learned from surviving dancers and has been an internationally acknowledged innovator in Cambodian classical dance for decades.
Cheam Shapiro developed Pamina Devi for a Viennese festival celebrating W.A. Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006. The work parallels Mozart's perennially popular singspiel in its characters and basic plot with a few subtle tweaks: Mozart's menacing serpent is replaced by the monstrous krut (garuda bird); Sarastro’s parallel, Preah Arun Tipadey, rules the aurous Realm of the Sun rather than the temple of Isis and Osiris; the two sets of lovers are left alone in peace in the final scene by the striking of a tiny "gong of consciousness" by bird-catcher Noreak (Papageno). More importantly, this retelling of The Magic Flute also puts a progressive spin on the eighteenth-century ideals and Freemason apocrypha that inform its source material.
Emanuel Schikaneder's original libretto pits the rational (male) against the irrational (female) in a symbolic struggle — Sarastro's enlightened thought versus the Queen of the Night's superstition and obscurantism. The work's romantic leads pursue each other against this interminable marital conflict, undergoing purification rituals, evading aggressive, unwanted suitors, fighting off the devoted minions of each camp. Cheam Shapiro's retelling maintains the original symbolism and major plot points, but an unmistakable feminist undertone bolsters the central theme to create a love story in which equality, compromise, patience, and understanding ultimately triumph.
Visually, Pamina Devi was simply breathtaking; its simple set design placed the focus on choreographic symmetry and individual characters' intricate movements and striking costumes. A low dais at center stage and a watercolor-washed lighted backdrop silhouetting the musicians comprised the minimalist set design. Bejeweled headpieces and brocaded sashes contributed a larger-than-life aura around the characters. The dancers' carefully calibrated movements — fluid but controlled choreography, coquettish and graceful hand-shapes, always-flexed feet, and knees almost constantly bent at the slightest, most excruciating angle — flowed beneath perfectly composed faces topped with gilded, towering headwear. The resulting choreodramatic language subtly communicated the action onstage to the audience, regardless of surtitles. Combined with the musicians' chanted Khmer lyrics, the oboe-like wailing of skor thom and sralai thom, and pulsing gongs and drums, this aesthetically sumptuous and artistically moving spectacle immersed the audience in a brilliant, otherworldly form of kinetic drama.
It wasn't Mozart, but the progressive thematic changes, globe-striding musicological implications, and captivating quality of performance that made Pamina Devi a fascinating experience.