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Sumeida’s Song, Powerful Opera in Boston Premiere


Felicia Gavilanes as Asakir ( Jonathan Cole photo)
Felicia Gavilanes as Asakir (Jonathan Cole photo)

Last year I was quite bowled over by Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Dead Man Walking [reviewed here]. So this year when BOC was back at the Somerville Theatre, with the Boston premiere of Sumeida’s Song, I knew I didn’t want to miss it. And I was not disappointed. This is an intense and tautly constructed work, and BOC brought excellent singers, polished music direction (Andrew Altenbach), and virtuosic performing from the orchestra. As General Director Chelsea Lewis mentioned in her welcome, “BOC is proud to be on the cutting edge of an ambitious young opera movement.” Indeed, their pride is justified, and also it is exciting to have performances like this one taking place in this venerable (if quirky) venue in the town I call home.

Sumeida’s Song, composed in 2009 by Mohammed Fairouz, is based on the play “A Song of Death,” written in the 1950s by Tawfiq El-Hakim. (Fairouz has written about his opera here ) The work evokes a drive for revenge reminiscent of Strauss’s Elektra. The three scenes (performed without interruption) of the single Act are constructed symmetrically.

The widow Asakir wants her son Alwan to avenge the death of her husband. As Asakir, Heather Gallagher (mezzo soprano) fills this role with chilling and single-minded commitment. Her burnished voice was rich with layers of emotional resonance. She was paired in duets with soprano Jenny Searles, playing Asakir’s sister, Mabrouka. Asakir is the central figure; her first extended passage gives her such drive, such frightening single-minded resolve. Gallagher’s dramatic depth, and the fluidity and emotional richness of her voice made this a larger-than-life role.

Alwan expresses bewilderment and shock at what his mother is asking. In contrast, his desire is to help his village by bringing innovations like modern shelters, so people won’t have to live in the same room as the farm animals. Alwan’s straightforward statement “I will not kill” stands in relief in its simplicity, in its stark uninflected clarity. Matthew Stansfield (Baritone) sang Alwan with sincerity and conviction.

And then Asakir’s anger boils up around it, with billowing swirls of white-hot emotion. As Asakir sharpens the knife, she evokes another driving and driven wife, Lady Macbeth, who (as a woman) cannot enact her own plans but must depend on another to do so: “Rise up my son, and quench my fire.” For Asakir, waiting for her son to reach manhood and enact the revenge has been a single-minded focus. At the same time, her son, growing up far from her, has been educated and has come to see that this cycle of killing, the senseless violence between the two clans of the village, must end. What the village needs running water, not rivers of blood.

A comparison with Elektra is suggested through the power (senseless, visceral power) of tribal duty and family responsibility. And the comparison is apt, except at the end. Asakir commands Sumeida (tenor Alex Schlosberg), her nephew, to kill her son since he has brought disgrace to their family by refusing to avenge his father. As she realizes that Sumeida has done what she commanded (Sumeida says she will hear him singing a song, a strident anthem, after the deed is done), she does not have Elektra’s exultant dance of triumph. Instead she wavers and breaks, wracked with anguish as she realizes that her son is now dead. With all four cast members on stage, this climatic ending is nothing less than a dramatic tour-de-force.

Stage Director Nathan Troup and Scenic Designer Julia Noulin-Mérat worked effectively together. The simple but evocative set used constructs of basic garments: a backdrop of connected shirts, and a structure suggesting a small house covered by (or constructed with) layers upon layers of clothes. This suggested the enveloping weight of daily life in the small village; the repetitiveness of habit, as Asakir and her family waited for Alwan to return and carry out the revenge. The father’s absence was conveyed by his coat, attached to the structure, conveying a continuing influence; at different points both Asakir and Alwan put the coat on, as submitting to the father’s authority.

Asakir (Felicia Gavilanes) hopes that her son Alwan will avenge his father's bloody (Jonathan Cole photo)
Asakir (Felicia Gavilanes) hopes that her son Alwan will avenge his father (Jonathan Cole photo)

Some quite virtuosic demands were made on the instrumentalists. I again thought of Richard Strauss in the extended string bass solo that leapt from the lowest to the highest extremes of the instrument and continued in a flexible, affecting, speech-like manner. This remarkable, driving expression conveyed the intensity of Asakir showing Alwan the saddlebag which was used to return her murdered husband to her, and the bloody knife that killed him, the very knife with which she expects Alwan to use to exact revenge. Later, in a viola solo that parallels the intensity of Asakir urging Sumeida to kill her errant son, the edginess of the viola’s sound and the plaintive slides and quarter-tones heightened the emotion of Asakir’s voice.

Fairouz’s musical language is rich and multilayered, full of melodic invention and incisive rhythmic motifs. Often the contrapuntal textures suggests Hindemith or Bartok. Crisply chiseled motives are tossed from instrument to instrument. A piquant Middle Eastern flavor is suggested (subtly, not glaringly) by the sinuous melodies with bent pitches and quarter tones, and occasional dashes of hand drums and tambourine.

The Somerville Theater is celebrating its centennial, and as a theater designed for live performances and movies with live music, it has a good-sized stage but a small orchestra pit. In this case only the brass and timpani were in the pit; while the strings, winds, and other percussion were just in front. This unusual configuration worked well, and although the string sections were small, balance was not an issue. The acoustic is certainly dry, and the subtle rattle of the ventilation system was perhaps an apt percussion effect, like an oh-so-distant ominous tambourine roll …

But the venue offers a wonderful immediacy which adds to the compelling meaning of the drama.

Performances continue tonight (Sunday, May 4) tomorrow and Tuesday at 8 PM. I am going again to steep myself in it (and to see the other cast)! The company’s weblink is here.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here

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  1. I went back again last night, thinking I would hear the other cast, but it was the same cast … of course, with such a richly conceived work, it was great to hear it again, both to take in more details, and the overall structure. The tenderness (with warm string writing) of the moment when Asakir and Alwan meet; an evocative flute solo, sparely accompanied, as Asakir unpacks the saddlebag (talk about baggage, literally and metaphorically!). The photo shows Asakir clutching the rolled up saddlebag.

    It was also wonderful to hear Fairouz, in the talk-back afterwards, discuss crafting the libretto (mostly trimming the play) working with translator Denys Johnson-Davies. The insights of the cast and music director Altenbach were also valuable. This opera will be performed by the Los Angeles Opera in two years, so it will be satisfying to be able to say “I heard it first in Somerville”!!

    Comment by Liane Curtis — May 5, 2014 at 11:10 am

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