Grand finale

Gala concerts provide their audiences with a unique pleasure; it is a festive special occasion. The Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr and accompanied by Cairo Opera Company singers was a true celebration of the most beloved arias.

Published on 1 July 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

The concert survived a series of the unfortunate organisational changes surrounding the event, first a change of the time (from 9pm to 8pm), and then its date (from 20 to 21 June).

On Monday, 21 June, the Gala Concert proved to be a wonderful finale to the 2009/ 2010 opera season. Gabr presented a brilliant compilation of 17 numbers from 15 different operas. What could have turned into a risky blend was in fact a holistic programme. The Cairo Opera Orchestra made a remarkable job of accompanying the singers, conveying all emotional colour of each successive aria. Gabr sculpted a range of beautiful dialogues between different sections of the orchestra, along with the ongoing exchange between the orchestra and the singers. Serious preparation was evident and it paid off.

The evening opened with Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). Rossini is always a lovely choice for opening a concert. The dynamism of those small compositions is always refreshing and energising and La gazza ladra Overture in particular is one of my own absolute favorites. The opening drum rolls — loud and then softer — give it a military grand atmosphere. The following march entwines seriousness with joy. As Rossini employs his hallmark crescendos, the composition becomes very vibrant and ends with a captivating climax. When listening to La gazza ladra, overtrue I always keep my fingers crossed for the piccolo player whose line is particularly difficult due to its extremely fast pace and sudden transitions. If not played perfectly, the bright color of the piccolo can easily turn into a painful screech. The Cairo Opera Orchestra’s piccolo met the task to perfection.

After Rossini, six renowned Egyptian singers of the Cairo Opera Company — Iman Moustafa, Mona Rafla, Gala El-Hadidi, Hany El-Shafee, Elhamy Amin and Reda El-Wakil — walked the audience through the most beloved arias. Despite some deviations, the first half of the concert included by and large early opera arias: Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore (1832), or other opera buffa gems such as “Voi che Sapete” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) or “La Calunnia” from The Barber of Seville composed by a very young Rossini (1816). Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” from opera La Bohème and “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly were constiituted the second half of the evening, where most of the arias were mature and musically rich compositions mainly from the second half of the 19th century.

All the arias were known to the Egyptian audience and many of them were sung in the last season. The opening “Voi che sapete” is sung by Cherubino, an adolescent page in the Count’s palace, whose voice is still very young; his role is often performed by a woman, a mezzo soprano. Gala El Hadidi sang aria lines in a very light manner, demonstrating technical ease in each phrase of this beautiful melody. In “I twitter and tremble without knowing why” (Palpito e tremo senza saper), she stressed the naivety of a young boy. Though in a dress, in her aria El Hadidi captured the required boyish attitude in a lovely and convincing manner. She sang solo once again in the second half of the evening, in Bizet’s “Chanson bohème” from opera Carmen. El-Hadidi’s passionate approach to this aria acted as a strong teaser for the audience to see the whole opera. No doubt she is a very talented mezzo, and she rises faster and faster with each performance she gives.

El-Hadidi and Mona Rafla’s duet “The Flower” from Léo Delibes Lakmé was lovely though this particular French style is no specialty of Egyptian singers. Aria “Caro Nome” (from Verdi’s Rigoletto ) brought back to the fore the beautiful sensitivity of Rafla’s soprano. I remember Rafla in December 2009 at the Cairo Opera House production of Pucccini’s La Bohème where she sang the role of Mimi. Aria “Quando m’en vo” is sung by Musetta, the character who is opposite Mimi character and who has the opposite temperament. In the Gala evening, Rafla added smoothness to the aria without undermining Musetta’s vitality.

Iman Moustafa was a pleasant surprise. Over her last few opera performances Moustafa seemed trapped in interpretations limiting to her creativity, suppressing her otherwise great vocal abilities. In the three arias sang during the Gala concert, she finally opened up. She was obviously relaxed and at ease. No doubt “Ritorna Vincitor” from Verdi’s Aida is her specialty, and Moustafa’s powerful vocal accents were as usual particularly expressive and convincing. “Un bel di vedremo” (from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly ) carried required passion while in aria “Vissi d’arte” (Puccini’s Tosca ) Moustafa developed a fine dialogue with the orchestra, especially interesting when set outside theatrical settings of the complete opera production.

Speaking of theatrical elements, one cannot keep ignoring Elhamy Amin’s skill. His aria of Figaro “Largo al factotum” (Rossini’s Barber of Seville ) was real candy for Amin, a singer and an actor. His acting abilities stirred spirits of the most serious audience members. Rossini’s showy and fast paced music complemented Figaro’s character who is believed to be a very important and a sought after barber. Who other than Amin’s baritone would enjoy this witty game which ends with an extremely fast exchange of phrases between the orchestra and the singer?

Amin and Hany El-Shafee also sang a charming duet “Au fond du temple saint” (Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles ). Shafee’s “Una furtiva lagrima” (Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore ) captured the audience’s hearts. Not only does the aria carry an extremely touching melody but the warm texture of El-Shafee’s voice embellished the aria with almost personal involvement. “La donna è mobile” — the famous aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto — is a great challenge for any tenor now singing under the pressure of comparisons to international tenors known to have sung it hundreds of times to never-ending ovations. El-Shafee sang the aria with rightful confidence in front of a few hundred audience members gathered at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, and the applause he received was definitely well deserved.

Reda El-Wakil has a very profound bass which we listened to in two arias: “Si, morir ella de’!” (Ponchielli’s La Giaconda ) and “La Calunnia” (Rossini’s Barber of Seville ). It was the latter that showcased El Wakil’s warm timbre. His bass is focused and his sheer skill cannot pass unnoticed. El-Wakil sang the words “Very softly, quite prosaically, under one’s breath, with a hiss” (Piano piano, terra terra, sotto voce, sibillando) with the utmost sensitivity. The final aria was Verdi’s “Brindisi” from La Traviata — a traditional closing of an opera gala. With all six singers on stage, the final word “Be carefree – for wine and song/With laughter, embellish the night/The new day, breaking, will find us still/In this happy paradise” was followed by much applause.

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