A beautifully mounted musical epic combining traditional myths with contempo meditations on violence and social inequality, “Opera Jawa” is bold and innovative. But it is so chock-a-block with metaphor and over-decorated with artists’ installations that it veers into the too-earnest waters of an ethnic fringe “happening” at Lincoln Center. Vet helmer Garin Nugroho gathers an impressive array of performers and artists for the all-singing, all-dancing morality play, charting cinematic waters that may best be appreciated by those already immersed in traditional Indonesian theater. International performance fests and Euro arthouses will give it some mileage, though Stateside prospects are weak.
Pic is billed as “A Cinema Requiem” dedicated to the victims of natural disasters, though it’s extended to all those suffering under oppression. Nugroho tells his tale using the traditional stylized Javanese dance-dramas known as “wayang orang,” combined with “tembang,” a singing declamatory narration. “Opera” is part of the New Crowned Hope tribute to Mozart’s anniversary and very much in tune with artistic director Peter Sellars’ own visionary productions.
Story’s kernel is taken from “The Abduction of Sinta,” one of the most popular tales in the Hindu epic “Ramayana.” Nugroho updates the legend and sets it closer to the present day, with Slamet Gundono as a singing storyteller to give background and explain the action.
Before her marriage, Siti (Artika Sari Devi) was a Javanese dancer known for interpreting the role of Sinta, the beautiful wife of Rama seized by a powerful king. Out of respect for hubby Setio (Martinus Miroto), also a former dancer, she gave up performing and works with him in his earthenware business, which has fallen on hard times.
Called away on business, Setio is unaware that local kingpin Ludiro (Eko Supriyanto) is determined to have Siti for his own. Feral and dripping in sexual enticements (Supriyanto is one helluva dancer), Ludiro tries luring her with incense, sparking her inner desires in an extraordinarily erotic scene.
Ludiro isn’t the village’s favorite son: He terrorizes locals and makes sure that businesses are in thrall to him and his gang of dancing hoodlums. Mom Sukesi (the elegant Retno Maruti) knows her boy is trouble, but helps him woo Siti anyway with an enormous red cloth that Christo would envy.
Wanting to be true to her husband but undeniably attracted to Ludiro’s forceful charms, Siti winds up a pawn between the two and their escalating conflicts.
All this is fleshed out by multiple dance troupes, 400 extras, and a bewildering array of props made by some of Indonesia’s foremost conceptual artists. Conical rice scoops become masks to terrorize; an extraordinary maze made of coconut shells (by Nindityo Adipurnomo) acts as a trap; and everywhere, white corpses and red wax heads are meant to remind auds of the human toll behind all acts of violence.
No doubt there’s more that a keen-eyed student of Javanese theater would catch, but even as it stands the identifiable symbolism winds up burying the characters, who have enough to say — or rather, sing and dance — without the need for such distractions.
Demonstrators with banners proclaiming “Down with exploitation!” are much too unsubtle a form of social commentary and just don’t integrate into the rest of the story.
Rahayu Supanggah’s specially composed score, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, plays within traditional forms while creating a work that feels equally contemporary. Lyrics that may have a certain poetry and flow in Javanese, however, often get lost in translation.
Nugroho is careful to represent the full range of Indonesia’s multicultural rainbow, and performers are all top-notch representatives of their particular art forms. Choreography is often mesmerizing, especially when set within the precincts of a gorgeous seaside palace rising above the flat landscape.