The Play of Krishna
Pantomime opera (Love Duet premiered 2013)
Narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra
As a child of 12 attending the Glyndebourne Festival, John Tavener was struck by the brilliance of Mozart's The Magic Flute, with its exquisite and playful musical depictions of archetypal characters. An even younger Tavener had a fondness for staging impromptu solo concerts for his grandfather, in which he would recreate elemental sounds such as thunder and crashing waves, and it is possible to see in both of these early fascinations the infant form of Tavener’s later and more explicit emphasis on writing music as a means by which to express something much bigger, more constant and enduring than the self. Tavener, as with Mozart and his archetypes, sought to communicate universal truths that transcend our narrower individual experiences and thus are recognisable to all.
While The Magic Flute never fell from favour with Tavener, it took him several decades of navigation through compositional fashions and his own metaphysical evolution to arrive back to a position in which it is a direct influence. Krishna marked a return for Tavener, following his extreme ill health, to music that is universal in scope and ecstatic in mood. Its composition and characterisations draw much from the character of Mozart’s Singspiel, presenting as it does episodes from the life of Krishna in what Tavener described as a ‘mystical pantomime’ employing mime, dance, song and acting. One of the many incarnations of Vishnu, the Supreme Being as worshipped in the Vaishnavist form of Hinduism, Krishna is most often depicted either as an infant or small child; or as a noble young man renowned as a hero or lover. He embodies Līla, the playful, blissful side of Vishnu and in whatever guise, there is about him a prevailing air of mischief mingled with enlightened composure, a kind of ideal spiritual guide.
Each of the fourteen vignettes from Krishna’s life as illustrated in Sanskrit in Krishna operates equally on a literal and an esoteric level, so that the action represents not only what the audience sees and hears, but what this implies metaphysically. To illuminate this dual significance for the audience, Tavener created the role of the ‘Celestial Narrator’, effectively a master of ceremonies who describes the onstage action to the audience very simply in English, moving among them and teasing out their responses by being himself alternately beguiling and frightening, benevolent and malevolent. The Celestial Narrator is played by a mercurial and charismatic baritone throughout, while the character of Krishna progresses from a treble to a baritone as he ages.
The play opens with the weeping earth deity Bhūmi, who has assumed the form of a cow in order to beg the Supreme Being to aid the overburdened earth. She stands before the Ocean of Milk, one of the seven oceans of various liquids described in Hindu cosmology and the domain of Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi. Krishna is then incarnated by a kind of meditative transmission to a woman’s womb; we see his ecstatic birth and attempted murder by the demoness Putana; his mother’s discovery of the heavens and universe inside his mouth; his first meeting with Radha, an earthly incarnation of Lakshmi and one of the 108 Gopi, or cow-herd girls; his trickery of the Gopi to reveal themselves to him; the dance of the Gopi in which he appears to each of them; and his departure from them. We then arrive at the love duet, the half-way point of the play and its climactic scene: the Supreme Being makes loves to Radha, adoring her in his earthly incarnation as Krishna. Tavener described the music for their choreographed union as ‘the most ecstatic I have ever written.’ Each time Krishna sings, the sacred mantra ‘Om namō narāyanāya’ is chanted, connecting the incarnation to his cosmic counterpart.
The subsequent scenes guide us through Krishna’s defeat of evil; his abduction of Rukhmini as his principal wife; the meeting of Radha and Rukhmini and the elision of their souls and bodies through love of Krishna; and his withdrawal from the world and return to paradise. The Epilogue presents a scene suggestive of our current age, which is by many Hindus believed to be the Kali Yuga, characterised by imbalance and aggression and the last in a cycle of four phases of decreasing enlightenment. There are echoes of Bhūmi’s weeping, as Krishna sings from paradise that when evil prevails and truth declines, he will return to the world.