MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: Sumeida’s Song (Complete opera) – Jo Ellen Miller/ Rachel Calloway/ Robert Mack/ Mischa Bouvier/ The Mimesis Ens./ Scott Dunn – Bridge

by | Jul 9, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: Sumeida’s Song (Complete opera) – Jo Ellen Miller (Mabrouka)/ Rachel Calloway (Asakir)/ Robert Mack (Sumeida)/ Mischa Bouvier (Alwan)/ The Mimesis Ensemble/ Scott Dunn – Bridge 9385, 62:28 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:

Then 22 years old, Mohammed Fairouz composed this opera in 2008, a work of complexity and depth—not to say serious subject matter—by one so young. The source came from the play Song of Death by the prominent Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, who died in 1987. The score is an interesting amalgamation of Middle Eastern music, nominal western music, and borderline contemporary music. Though most listeners might mistake the Arabian influences as “modern” because of their flirtatious escapades with microtones and bent notes, they are in fact quite ancient. Mix in some passages that sound post-expressionistic like Alban Berg, a number of ecstatic flights of melody that are rooted in modern romantic and good old popular song melodic constructs, all undergirded with a thick and multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic propulsion garnered from his teacher Ligeti, and you have an idea of what this sounds like.

The plot itself speaks of a son who returns to his peasant village in Egypt sometime in the early 20th century, spending the years getting a modern education. His mother is waiting for him, brewing and stewing over a seething hatred for the man she believes murdered her husband. This has been going on for 17 years, and she wants her son to avenge his father’s death. Ultimately he refuses, and the cost is high.

The first actual performance of the work on stage took place after this recording was made, four years after the composition of the work. That reading used only nine instruments due to theater and pit considerations, though this recording has a full chamber ensemble. The recording is very close, bright, and somewhat treble in nature, and though the orchestra plays very well there are moments of uncertainty, not unusual for a recording of a new piece of music and especially a work as difficult as this one. The four singers are excellent, though I sense some strain and lack of focus in some of the passages of mezzo Rachel Calloway (though in fairness her on-stage rendering has gotten good reviews). What I miss is the ability to see this work. Judging from the descriptions of it from the stage performance, one of the most powerful effects of this opera is being as close to it as the patrons physically are (the Prototype Festival at the Mainstage Theater in New York, seating about 100) and being thrust into the action. I don’t sense this as much on the recording, and because I also am of the opinion that Fairouz, though speaking primarily in his own voice, has not yet settled into a style that can consistently project meaning through operatic voices alone devoid of the visual element.

Make no mistake though—this young man is an important composer with a lot say, though still a work in progress. We shall see if he fulfills his promise. And I do hope this opera will be released on DVD or Blu-ray. That sort of familiarity will go a long way towards making the bare soundtrack more intelligible, and maybe even loved.

—Steven Ritter

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