> Opera and Oratorio
J. E. Miller, Calloway; Mack, Bouvier; Mimesis Ensemble, S. Dunn. English text. Bridge Records 9385
Sumeida's Song, the first opera by the gifted and accomplished young Arab– American composer Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985), received concert performances at New York's Ethical Culture Society in 2011 and Zankel Hall in 2012. In January 2013, it had its first fully staged production as the opening event of the first "Prototype: Opera/Theater/Now" festival in New York. This recording was made shortly after the Zankel performance.
In composing Sumeida's Song, Fairouz set his sights high: his libretto is his own translation of Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim's 1956 play Song of Death, considered a modern Arab classic. The themes are the perennial conflicts of tradition versus modernity, revenge versus forgiveness, blind faith versus progressive enlightenment. Sumeida's Song announces its distinctive, uncompromising musical intentions in its opening bars with a succession of dissonant train whistles amid a spare, acerbic musical underpinning, suggesting bleak lives and impending conflict. Even when the singing voices enter, and the musical language softens to include open fifths, we are clearly in an exotic realm.
Those voices belong to Asakir, the mother of Alwan, the opera's tragic hero, and Asakir's sister, Mabrouka. Asakir has waited seventeen years for her son to return home from Cairo and exact revenge for the murder of her husband (Alwan's father) by killing the man she believes was his murderer. Alwan, who was secretly sent away at the age of two after his father's death, has in the meantime become a Sheikh of the great Al-Azhar University. He is more interested in helping the peasants of his native village improve their lives than in fulfilling this blood feud. Asakir, aghast and devastated at her son's unwillingness to kill, dispatches Mabrouka's son Sumeida to kill Alwan instead. The opera's title refers to Asakir's instructions to Sumeida to sing, signaling that Alwan has arrived by train in Act I, and that his murder has been accomplished in Act III.
Fairouz uses masterly variation of orchestral textures to pace the drama. The tension between mother and son is immediately obvious in Act II: this is no joyous family reconciliation; they are of completely different worlds. Fairouz also introduces the use of quarter-tones, characteristic of Arabic melodic modes, to mirror Asakir's mental disintegration; this is highly effective, and it's a vivid contrast with her iterations of "God knows best," which take place with a clangorous unison C accompaniment. In Alwan's response to her, "I shall tell them," he becomes the voice of nobility, amid grand, visionary music. Asakir's Act III "Impossible Life" skillfully blends elegiac lyricism with near-painful dissonance, an almost unbearable journey through her psyche. When Asakir pleads with Sumeida to kill Alwan, Fairouz plies his orchestrational craft to create horrifying high drama.
Mezzo Rachel Calloway has the adept musicianship and dramatic flair required for the demanding role of Asakir, and she controls the weight of her voice effectively, preventing even her most unhinged diatribes from becoming too strident. Soprano Jo Ellen Miller sings the challenging but less intense role of Mabrouka with attractive purity, providing a welcome breath of fresh air particularly in Act III, when she arrives amid a burst of welcome D-major tonality. As Alwan, Mischa Bouvier is authoritative and grand, with a soothing, cavernous baritone that can soar to heights of lyric beauty, as on the line "I ask God to calm your agitated soul." As Sumeida, tenor Robert Mack gives full-throated, ardent renderings of the titular song, and his anguished cry of "Bring me the knife!" is hair-raising. The very impressive Mimesis Ensemble, under the assured, dextrous leadership of Scott Dunn, plays a crucial role in this music drama, with special praise due the solo string players and the two trumpeters, who provide unsettlingly dissonant fanfares. Sumeida's Song is by no means easy listening, but it packs a ferocious punch, which was, we must assume, exactly the composer's intention.
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