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Mohammed Fairouz [Photo courtesy of composer]
24 Apr 2011

Sumeida’s Song

It has long been my belief that the problems of the planet would be resolved (or move on to their next stage) if only the folk of every ethnicity (nation, faith, historic minority, tribe) would devote their energy to creating opera—and perhaps theater or dance—out of its musical and mythical traditions.

Mohammed Fairouz: Sumeida’s Song

Mabrouka: Rachel Calloway; Asakir: Jo Ellen Miller; Sumeida: Robert Anthony Mack; Alwan: Randall Scarlata. Mimesis Orchestra, conducted by Scott Dunn.

Above: Mohammed Fairouz [Photo courtesy of composer]


That would certainly calm a lot of people down at any rate. The Arabs, for example. They’ve grown understandably restive about the way their societies have been run lately, and with their capacity for narration (1001 Nights, anybody?) and distinctive musical heritage, opera ought to be a natural for them. The more cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world have developed a rich theatrical scene in the last century, and their films and music-videos imply the cultural jump would not be an awkward one. There’s a kebab-and-hookah restaurant near me that shows Egyptian music-videos from the early Nasser years, or so I infer by the length of the ladies’ skirts. But we’ll have to be quick before Arab culture is swamped (as youtube is already swamped) with Bollywood-style Arabic videos, of which Lebanon already produces quite a trove.

Mohammed Fairouz, who is 26 and was educated in London (his biography in the program is cagey about where exactly he was born), has already prowled much of the planet, studying instruments from the oud to the didgeridoo, though the Mimesis Orchestra that played the premiere of his opera, Sumeida’s Song, in the hall of the Ethical Culture Society last week was made up of traditional Western instruments with some enhanced percussion. The use to which Fairouz put this orchestra demonstrates an impressive control of the varied textures it can produce. He was careful—perhaps unduly so—to avoid the trap of relying on “Middle Eastern” motifs in “Western” orchestration, which could have sounded like Hollywood’s scores for Arabian Nights movies of the fifties, but he introduced a phrase or two of Middle Eastern-style drumbeat or oboe riff into a manner more typical of spiky modern borderline tonalities. Middle Eastern-isms have been explored in considerably greater detail in John Corigliano’s wind concerti, but that is the very sentimentality that Fairouz evades.

The character of the score across three brief acts (about eighty minutes) gave every section of the orchestra something interesting to do. Percussion, as is true with so many modernist works, was full of interest, but the beats were not for dancing: Rather, they illustrated references in the text to winds, to vendetta, to railroads. Woodwinds did not mimic Arabian lament but underlined phrases in the drama. Thunderous low brasses accompanied deadly events in an international manner. Yet this very avoidance of anything specifically “Arabian” may have been a mistake: The most affecting moment of the score, for me, was the last wail of an implacable mother: The soprano’s voice, shifting through semitones, seemed to imply a mixture of traditional keening with an uncertainty about her bloodthirst and its consequences that went well with the fading, uneasy tremolos of the last bars of the opera and encapsulates the moral of the story.

All this expert orchestration was, unfortunately, not matched by any gift for libretto-writing. The story, taken without alteration from a classic play by the modern Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, concerns the widowed Asakir, whom we find awaiting her son’s return from the big city. When his father was murdered by a rival clan, she smuggled the boy to Cairo, hoping he’d apprentice to a butcher—in order to learn to use a knife properly. Instead, he went to college and realized how his rural people have been oppressed. He is 19 now, a modern man who refuses to consider vendetta—he’d rather organize the people to improve their dreary lives. His mother, outraged, taunts one of his cousins into killing her disgrace of a son. The cousin is Sumeida, whose song, sung twice, signifies first Alwan’s return, then his death.

There are possibilities here, for a librettist of genius, but in the unaltered play that constitutes the libretto it is rather ploddingly told. It is difficult not to recall such similarly brutal and elemental stories as those of Cavalleria Rusticana or Tosca, and how cleverly their librettists slid back-story into dramatic event. In Sumeida’s Song, everything is explained at the moment it is said, and none of the music carries us, holds us melodically, or builds to a satisfying explosion. In eschewing melodramatic music in a melodramatic tale, Fairouz, like most modern composers, really has nowhere to turn. His intriguing orchestration is accompaniment, whereas in opera the music should share the dramatic propulsion. It is not good being told (as the libretto told us, at several moments) that someone is performing an aria; either we feel it as an aria, as a statement, as an expression of inner feeling, or we do not. These arias were indistinguishable from the explicatory dialogue.

Fairouz’s vocal writing seemed either ungrateful, exploring the extremes of his prima donna’s range in both directions, or else Jo Ellen Miller as the murderous Asakir simply wasn’t up to it. Inaudible in the first act, she pulled some dignified phrases out at as the drama proceeded. None of the other singers had a fully-formed character to portray, and all were easily drowned out when the orchestra roused itself, though the composer politely restrained them whenever some special lyrical message needed to be expressed.

Fairouz demonstrated genuine ability and achievement as an orchestral technician, and he may well have more to offer singers with a more focused text (he has composed ten song cycles), but nothing about Sumeida’s Song suggested a mature affinity for opera.

John Yohalem

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