Soiree Francaise with the Cairo Opera Orchestra

Photo: Sherif Sonbol

On 19 April, Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Dominique Rouits and a number of soloists performed works by the French composers: Bizet, Debussy; arias from operas by Bizet, Delibes, Saint-Saens, Massenet and Gounod

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

It is not every day that an internationally renowned conductor performs on the stage of the Cairo Opera House. Many years ago, inviting big names to conduct two of Cairo’s orchestras, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and the Cairo Opera Orchestra, was a regular practice. A resume of the over half a century old Cairo Symphony Orchestra incorporates renowned names including Charles Munch, Ottokar Truhlik, Ole Schmidt, Yehudi Menuhin, Gennady Rozhdestvenzky, Janos Kukla, Patrick Fournillier and Alain Paris, not to mention a concert given by Daniel Barenboim in 2009.

For its part, founded in 1994, the Cairo Opera Orchestra’s repertoire includes a large number of celebrated ballets and operas performed with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company or the Cairo Opera Company. The orchestra hosted many renowned soloists. Among a number of invited conductors we find: Massimo Pradella from Italy, who conducted the orchestra in 2004; Ernst Schelle from Germany, who was the guest conductor on several occasions since 2002; Thomas Herzog; Thomas Roesner; Benoit Wilman; among others. The audience will recall Thomas Kalb from Germany – General Music Director of the Heidelberg Philharmonic Orchestra – conducting the Cairo Opera Orchestra during Rossini’s Opera Festival in 2004 and returning as a guest conductor on many occasions.

On 19 April, Dominique Rouits, a French conductor, graced the Cairo Opera Orchestra with his presence. Rouits is among the most important guest conductors of the orchestra in the last couple of years. In 1989, he founded the Massy Orchestra (Orchestre de Massy) of which he is also artistic director and principal conductor. Rouits was invited to many countries in Europe, Asia as well as Canada and Mexico. One of the important aspects of his career is education; currently he teaches conducting at a prestigious music school in France, the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris; many young students from around the world seek his expertise.

Dominique Rouits’s performance with the Cairo Opera Orchestra included compositions by the French composers Georges Bizet, Claude Debussy, Leo Delibes, Camille Saint-Saens, Jules Massenet and Charles Gounod. with mezzo soprano Nathalie Espallier, tenor Georges Wanis, and Manal Mohei El-Din on harp. Needless to say, this special concert was titled Soiree Francaise; it gave the audience a unique blend of French music.

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is among the most beloved operas around the world and as such a few of its arias were performed at the end of the evening. Among other programme elements was Massenet’s Werther, a composition that recalls the tortured soul of the protagonist of Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the most powerful literary cries that has influenced composers and painters alike. Massenet’s opera gives Werther a successful musical translation of all romantic values.

Understandably, the French Evening wouldn’t have been complete without a few arias from Carmen; Werther conveying his incurable sorrow and the rejuvenated Faust from Gounod’s opera not extolling the virtues of Marguerite were equally necessary. Two guest singers, mezzo soprano Nathalie Espallier from France and Egyptian-Italian tenor Georges Wanis, gave their interpretation of a number of arias from the iconic French operas.

Espallier’s resume includes a number of roles in operas and operettas, including numerous appearances in Bizet’s Carmen. Her rich timbre made her portrayal of Carmen agreeable, as she moved from the signature Habanera to seductive accents in Seguidille to a duo finale with Wanis with “C’est toi! C’est moi!”, where both singers showed a convincing synergy.

Wanis’ diminuendi leaned gracefully on orchestral linings emerging from one of the earlier arias “Salut demeure chaste et pure” (I greet you, home chaste and pure) from Gounod’s Faust. For when Faust “senses love taking hold of [his] being”, one can only indulge in the elegance of Gounod’s sensibility.

There was yet another important musical aspect to the whole evening, however: Dominique Rouits himself. Starting with Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite no. 2 in the first half of the evening, like a sculptor Rouits meticulously drew all the details out of the orchestra. In Debussy’s Dances for Solo Harp and String Orchestra, with soloist Manal Mohei El-Din, Rouits gave soothing and dreamy orchestral touches to the composition. Though the soloist has a long history of remarkable performances, for some reason, she seemed not to be at ease during this particular evening.

Well controlled, expressive and articulate, Rouits’ baton effortlessly brought out the meanings of the compositions. Filled with undeniable marvels, the evening would have been just perfect if not for relentless flaws from the brass section. It is really unfortunate that such a good evening must be dusted with this critical note yet problems in the brass section have become so repetitive that it is hard to hide the frustration. It is apparent that over the past months, under the management of the new artistic director and principal conductor Nayer Nagui, the Cairo Opera Orchestra has made significant progress in many of its sections; and the brass has to catch up. On a positive note, it is important to shed light on the good efforts of the flautist in her long solo played with the harp in Bizet’s L’Arlesienne.

All in all, one left the hall content. An important concert as such should be better taken care of by the Cairo Opera House’s marketing department to ensure that the big number of empty chairs is filled with audience ready to indulge in classical gems. For the Cairo Opera House, advertising of the valuable concerts is as mysterious as the best concerts are mesmerising.

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