Sunday, December 30, 2018

Adwan, Moody & Van der Horst: Orfeo & Majnun (Theatre La Monnaie, Brussels, July 8, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I came home from dinner and I announced that our movie selection would be, in the immortal words of Monty Python, “something completely different.” It turned out to be a download of a modern opera called Orfeo & Majnun (given the multilingual and multicultural nature of the production — more on that later — I’m not sure which of the three languages used that “&” should be translated into!) which was produced by the Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels and was the culmination of several months’ worth of events, some of them open to public participation, built around the themes of desire and longing and in particular about two mythic couples who lost each other through forces beyond their control. One, Orpheus and Eurydice, you’ve almost certainly heard about: Orpheus was the master musician of ancient Greece who became engaged to Eurydice, only she died suddenly the day before their scheduled wedding. Orpheus charmed Hades, the Greek god of death (and also the name for the physical underground afterlife the ancient Greeks believed they were going to when they croaked — interestingly the Greeks did not, as the Abrahamic religions did, posit two afterlives, a pleasant one for the “good” people and a highly nasty one of eternal suffering for the “bad” people), into letting him descend into the kingdom of the dead and bring Eurydice back to Earth and to normal life. Only Hades told him that he was not supposed to look back at her when they made the journey from the underworld to Earth, and when he did so she immediately disappeared from his sight and died permanently. This legend, especially given that the hero was a musician and singer, was a “natural” for the early opera composers, and while Carlo Gagliano’s La Dafne from 1600 is the earliest opera known to exist, it is the L’Orfeo of  Claudio Monteverdi from 1607 that is the earliest opera actually in the modern repertory. The other story they drew on for this production is more obscure — frankly, before this I’d only heard of it as the basis of Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” — a Bedouin Arab story about the well-born Layla al-Aamiriya and her lover, the penniless poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah. Unfortunately, Layla’s dad didn’t want her to “marry down” and so he arranged for her to marry an upper-class guy, and Qays became so obsessed with her he stalked her and wrote poems to her, being so aggressive in his pursuit he acquired the nickname “Majnun” (literally the Arabic for “crazy,” though since the Majnun and Leyla story became popular it’s come to mean specifically someone made crazy by frustrated love. Though the basic story is Arabic in origin, the most famous literary treatment of it (and the one that “froze” its details for future writers and scholars much the way Bram Stoker’s Dracula did for European vampire mythology) was a 12th century poetic novel by Persian writer Niāmi Ganjavi.

The Theatre La Monnaie’s presentation of Layla & Majnun involved three composers — Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody and Dick van der Horst — though only one credited librettist, Martina Winkel, and with Airan Berg in overall artistic charge of the work. It also involved three languages: a narrator (Sachii Gholamalizad) and chorus sing in French, while Orpheus (the quite hunky Yoann Dubruque) and Eurydice (Judith Fa) sing in English — I guess there aren’t that many singers out there trained to sing in classical Greek — and Majnun (Loay Srouji) and Layla (Nai Barghouti) sing in what I presume is Arabic (though given the story’s detour into 12th century Persia it might have been Farsi). Throughout the performance I kept thinking of the Fanfare magazine critic who wrote that if modern-day opera producers and directors want to create productions that deal with modern-day social, political and psychological issues, they should commission new works with those concerns built-in rather than attempting to tweak old operas to include such themes, violating the original intentions of composers and librettists. Orfeo & Majnun seemed like a successful effort to do just that — to take the age-old dramatic themes of love and desire and create a work rooted in operatic tradition but also fully contemporary and with a sense that the production is communicating what the work’s creators intended instead of some directorial agenda grafted on decades or centuries after the piece was originally written. It also offered an interesting insight into the surprising similarity between Western-style coloratura composition and traditional Arabic music, especially the way both call on singers to do extensive ornamentation over many notes on a single vowel.

The performance dragged in places, and one element — the crude puppets (with their human manipulators clearly visible on stage) used to denote the animals that figure in the tale — seemed almost risible, but for the most part I was impressed. Charles complained that Judith Fa and Nai Barghouti looked too similar — Barghouti was shorter, stouter and bushier-haired, but they were not only similar “types,” they were both wearing white dresses and Charles thought the producers should have costumed them in different colors so we could tell them apart before they started singing and we noted which language they were singing in. It didn’t help that La Monnaie was performing this in an outdoor venue and as a result the singers had to wear microphones stuck to their cheeks that looked like tumors until you realized what they were — but I liked the production overall. No doubt I’d have liked it even better if it had come with English subtitles (it was subtitled in French) — even the parts that were in English were only sporadically comprehensible (a problem with coloratura music in general — though I still remember the 1959 broadcast recording of Handel’s Rodelinda in English in which Joan Sutherland was her usual mush-mouthed self and Janet Baker, in a supporting role, had excellent and vividly clear English diction) — but Orfeo & Majnun is a quite compelling new opera and I hope it has sufficient “legs” to be given more stagings, hopefully with the choral parts and the narration performed in the native language of the country where it’s being performed (much the way Stravinsky composed Oedipus Rex in Latin but specified that the narration be in the language of the country where it’s being performed).