Trudging through snow and tripping on ice en route to Dünya’s Othello in the Seraglio a month ago (in the Cambridge Society for Early Music series), I ended up with a concussion. Yet I so thoroughly, if dizzily, enjoyed the first half that, when I heard the performance would be repeated, I marked my calendar.
There is so much to absorb and to admire in this musicians’ collective’s inspired production of Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch (presented Tuesday in NEC’s Brown Hall) that my second hearing happily enriched the first. I wouldn’t mind hearing it a third time: it is that good.
Meaning “world” in Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Greek, Dünya is a collective and record label founded in Boston in 2004. Conceived with original music and Turkish poetry by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (recently a Grammy nominee for a piece he wrote for A Far Cry), it uses five singers for its two languages (Italian and Turkish), a storyteller (the gifted Max Sklar), and a band of 10, made up of specialists on 16th– and 17th-century European instruments and specialists on Turkish ones. I was fascinated by the oddly shaped Ottoman harp (çeng), played by Dünya’s vice-president, the ethnomusicologist Robert Labaree, one of the few musicians to perform on only one instrument. He had a major role in this production, developing the “coffeehouse opera” concept and writing the extensive storyteller script, which both informs and entertains the audience.
Three sources were mined: Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello (1603), Un capitano moro (Giraldo, 1565), and The Bastard of the Chief Black Eunuch (Koçu, 1933). The music comes from 16th– and 17th-century sources both European and Turkish, and was arranged, with original music and additional Turkish poetry, by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, who nearly stole the show with his extraordinary ululations.
Both halls in which I heard this coffeehouse opera held about 200, and were packed. We were meant to imagine being in a coffeehouse in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in the 17th century, where an all-male cosmopolitan audience smoked and sipped coffee, “a newly fashionable stimulant imported from Yemen,” the notes explain. The four singers were Dünya’s amazing tenor Sanlikol, who had the lead role of Sümbäl Aga, the retired, aging chief black eunuch of the Ottoman court; Suzan, an Italian slave girl who becomes his wife, sung beautifully by soprano Camilla Parias; Frenk Mustafa, Sümbül’s aide and a former European slave, sung by the multi-talented baritone Michael Barrett (whom I have admired in Blue Heron), who also played lute and recorders; and alto Burcu Güleç, Suzan’s servant.
As no one is singing in English, the storyteller is indispensable. More background could be found in the excellent booklet, which cast light on the many crosscultural intricacies of its poetry, music, and history. Sanlikol’s concept resembled opera pasticcio, a Baroque form in which composers like Handel and Vivaldi created substantial theatrical works from both existing and original music. Sanlikol writes:
There are three distinct layers of music, which may stand alone, interact or merge; borrowed period music (European and Turkish); new music incorporating melodic and harmonic features of the borrowed material; and certain musical instruments and timbres—not period-specific—that highlight dramatic moments. I hoped to achieve a coherent musical statement by balancing these layers within the architecture of the opera. Duets between a Turk and a European even combine music of East and West: the Turkish makam (mode) is used for the Turk, and the European’s music is scored against it following the modal polyphonic practices of early European music.
The results scintillated and the audience loved every minute. The instrumentalists seemed to be having a terrific time as well. These included Michael Barrett (lute and recorders), Beth Bahia Cohen (spike fiddle, çiftetellii—octave violin), Burcu Güleç (wooden spoons, finger cymbals, castanets); Robert Labaree (Ottoman harp); Carol Lewis (gamba); Steven Lundahl (sackbut, trumpet, recorders); Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (short-necked lute, cane flute, and double-reed pipe); Dan Stillman (sackbut, trumpet, dulcian); and George Lernis and Bertram Lehmann, superb on percussion (small kettledrums, bass drum, hourglass-shaped drum, frame drum, same with cymbals, bells, talking drum, seriously, side drum and kettledrum). The ensemble had performed this piece several times and they all played just wonderfully. Sanlikol’s music was perfection, as were the many other arrangements. Sanlikol’s double-reed pipe opened the show, and its piercing sound, a lot like a ram’s horn, instantly transported us out of 21st-century Boston.
The storyline is timeless, one of love and lethal jealousy, intensified by the crossing of boundaries between enslaved and free, white and black, Muslim and non-Muslim. Sanlikol’s and Labaree’s Othello in the Seraglio brings timeless enchantment to this age-old tragedy. The gorgeous music was beautifully played and sung. I look forward to hearing whatever Dünya does next.