A dose of Mozart

One-act operas, especially when they are by Mozart, add immeasurably to any opera company’s repertoire.

Published on 3 November 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

On 25 and 26 October, the Cairo Opera Orchestra dedicated its programming to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Conducted by Hisham Gabr, the Orchestra performed Mozart’s Symphony No. 35. In the second half of the evening, the Cairo Opera Company performed the singspiel The Impresario.

The evening opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major “Haffner.” The Symphony was composed in 1783, commissioned by the prominent Salzburg Haffner family on the occasion of Sigmund Haffner’s ennoblement.

The Symphony opens with a shiny allegro con spirito. It was a cheerful opening and sparked a fresh spirit, promising a unique evening to the audience gathered at the El-Gomhoria Theatre. The opening of the Symphony showed the different shades and colours of the strings, and the brilliant passages were clear and crisp, while the brass section improved significantly regarding intonation and colour throughout the Symphony.

In the second movement (andante), the strings continued to shape clear phrases. In the third movement, conductor Hisham Gabr brought to the surface the different nuances that embellish the minuetto. The fourth movement (presto) reintroduces bright shifts and brisk energy from the first movement: as Mozart required “it is to be played as fast as possible”. Though composed in a very short time between other obligations on Mozart’s desk, the Symphony was a success. Wolfgang himself wrote to his father: “the theatre could not have been more crowded; every box was full. But what pleased me most of all was that His Majesty the Emperor [Joseph II] was present and, goodness! — How delighted he was and how he applauded me!”

The second half of the evening invited singers of the Cairo Opera Company onto the stage to perform The Impresario ( Der Schauspieldirektor ), a comic one-act singspiel (opera with spoken dialogue) based on a libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie. In this very short work, two sopranos, Madame Goldentrill (Mme Hertz), a fading opera star, and Miss Warblewell (Miss Silberklang), a rising opera star, compete for a role in the upcoming opera. The audition is managed by Mr Cache (Herr Vogelsang), the director’s assistant who also sings and tries to impress with his managerial capacities. He is assisted by a friend, Mr. Buff, a bass-baritone, who also hopes to get a role on stage. A number of contestants compete for the main role, yet the final audition is limited to Goldentrill and Warblewell. Having performed their remarkable arias, Mr Cache decides to take both singers and adjust the role accordingly.

The Impresario involves a number of actors and four singing roles: two sopranos, tenor Mr Cache and bass- baritone Mr Buff. There are four singing numbers interwoven among developed spoken parts. The plot requires only minimal means for the production to see the light. The Cairo Opera Company performed the singing parts in German in an Arabic adaptation of the text in which a number of characters were removed, limiting the singspiel to four singers and omitting all the actors.

Though the original singspiel is not complicated in terms of plot and characters, the secondary roles add many interesting colours to the setting and their removal left a significant vacuum. Moreover, simplifications in the adaptation did not do justice to Mr Buff, whose appearance on stage in the last minutes of the performance is not dramaturgically justified. It is worth mentioning that in original text of The Impresario, Mr Buff opens the opera with a long monologue as the overture is performed; he dreams of stardom, showing off his big ambitions and few artistic abilities. His flirtatious attitude is first seen with Madame Goldentrill, whom he dumps once Miss Warblewell enters.

In the Arabic adaptation, Mr Buff’s original character is annihilated. Though the audience didn’t have a chance to listen to his pretentious monologue during the overture, the music played by the Cairo Opera Orchestra gave a promising opening to the singspiel. Further simplification of the spoken text affected the impresario himself. In the Arabic adaptation, impresario Frank and Mr Vogelsang, a singer, were combined into one character: an impresario named Mr Cache.

Though all the dramaturgical trimmings definitely affected the theatrical aspect of the original singspiel, the final — let us say, new — version of The Impresario did not lack interesting interaction between the characters. Here, we have to raise our chapeau to Hisham El Tally, the opera’s director, who has made enormous efforts to turn this lovely work into a well- designed stage performance.

El Tally included many interesting ideas, and without challenging the singers’ vocal abilities he added a lot of needed dynamism to the El-Gomhoria stage. Though theatrically speaking the production had had some flaws — especially in the constantly falling rhythm in the spoken parts — El Tally impressed the audience with his well-designed mise-en-scene. It was one of those very rare times that an Egyptian director treated opera as the real mother of all the arts and the theatrical part of it accordingly came to the surface with all its powers.

It was obvious that for El Tally opera is an important theatrical experience, and this approach proved to be very successful, emphasising the best sides of each singer and hence making each one a star in their respective roles. At the same time, the singers and actors — Sara Enany as Madame Goldentrill (on 25 and 26 October), Amina Khairat as Miss Warblewell (on 26 October), Amr Medhat as Mr Cache (on 26 October) and Ezzat Ghanem as Mr. Buff (on 25 and 26 October) — did not disappoint with their performances.

Enany’s voice was complemented by a lovely and well-controlled stage presence, introduced in the first melancholic aria “Da schlagt des Abschieds Stunde” (The hour of parting has struck). Khairat added bubbling freshness and serious dedication in her vocal and theatrical presentation of the role. Contrasting in their characters, both sopranos, accompanied by Medhat, coped adequately with the well-known and very demanding trio “Ich bin die erste Söngerin” (I am the prima donna). The final quartet, joined by Ghanem, was a well-performed number in which all the characters coordinated well.

Though very short, Mozart’s singspiel The Impresario makes a lovely element in a musical evening. It is important for the Cairo Opera Company to consider including a larger number of one-act operas in its repertoire. One-act operas are very rewarding and artistically satisfying to many music and theatre lovers. At the same time, they give a good opportunity for young talented directors, such as Hisham El Tally, to practice their craft, while doing justice to this art genre.

Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra: Mozart: Symphony No. 35 “Haffner” &”The Impresario”. Director: Hisham El Tally; conductor: Hisham Gabr; El-Gomhoria Theatre, 25 and 26 October.

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