Ar­rest­ing mu­sic from un­fa­mil­iar sources in an oper­atic tale about ju­di­cial killing

The Guardian - - JOURNAL THE CRITICS - Bill Bar­clay The Shub­bak fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary Arab cul­ture ends tonight. For more in­for­ma­tion see shub­

World mu­sic Woman at Point Zero LSO St Lukes, Lon­don

Three jan­gly notes from the santour, tuned in an Ara­bic maqam, were all it took to sig­nal that you were in for a very dif­fer­ent kind of evening. A santour is an Ira­nian dul­cimer, and a maqam is a Mid­dle Eastern scale that you can’t play on a pi­ano – but one didn’t need to know ei­ther of those things to en­joy the sub­tle net­work of deep emo­tional im­pres­sions in this over­full evening of UK pre­mieres.

Four male com­posers of Ara­bic ori­gin filled out the con­cert’s first half – loosely ex­plor­ing the theme of the hu­man voice – in a broad Mid­dle East-meets-west con­ver­sa­tion of cham­ber mu­sic. The main event, how­ever, was the first pub­lic shar­ing of selec­tions from a promis­ing new opera by the Bri­tish-Le­banese com­poser Bushra El-Turk. Adapt­ing the land­mark 1975 novel by Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, El-Turk fash­ions a sung mono­logue by Fir­daus, an Egyp­tian pros­ti­tute in­ter­viewed in prison on the night be­fore her ex­e­cu­tion.

Fol­low­ing the novel, the opera be­gins with our an­ti­heroine de­cid­ing to tell her life’s story. A hand­ful of episodes are son­i­cally and phys­i­cally re­alised by mem­bers of En­sem­ble Zar. In a canny ex­ten­sion of the voice-themed first half, the sex­tet ex­clu­sively played wind in­stru­ments, from the ac­cor­dion to Ar­me­nian duduk, Ara­bic nays, Korean taegum, Ja­panese sho, El­iz­a­bethan crumhorn, recorder, and Slo­vakian fu­jara. Wit­tily chore­ographed by di­rec­tor Maria Kori­pas, the band were both an­tag­o­nist and cho­rus to Fir­daus, who was played by the Ger­man-Egyp­tian singer Merit Ari­ane Stephanos.

Al­though she is a char­ac­ter still in de­vel­op­ment, Stephanos em­bod­ied Fir­daus’s raw­ness with au­then­tic­ity and con­vic­tion. The opera has yet to ad­dress how telling one’s story at death’s door af­fects the act of sto­ry­telling it­self, but over­all this was a priv­i­leged first look at an ar­rest­ing new piece of mu­sic the­atre.

The evening did suf­fer from in­se­cure pac­ing and too much ma­te­rial. The first half would have been bet­ter served with three in­stead of four pieces, as the event over­ran by some 30 min­utes. But such are the risks with so many new el­e­ments in a fes­ti­val con­text.

Now in its fourth in­car­na­tion, the Shub­bak fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary Arab cul­ture em­braces both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional artists, of­ten smash­ing them to­gether at high speed to cre­ate orig­i­nal – if tem­per­a­men­tal – in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary events. It was thrilling to see so much di­ver­sity in such a bastion of western mu­sic as St Luke’s, and more should be made of the bi­en­nial Shub­bak and its artists – it is clear they have much to say.

Photo: Tris­tram Ken­ton

Raw­ness and con­vic­tion … Merit Ari­ane Stephanos

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