Mahmoud, Tahrir

The world premiere of Tahrir, an opera by Hossam Mahmoud, an Egyptian composer based in Salzburg (and a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar), took place at the Salzburg Landestheater while I was on my way back from Odessa last month, but I fortunately managed to catch the production tonight. Mahmoud, who wrote the libretto (in German) as well as the music, produced a powerful drama in all respects, inspired by the Egyptian spring uprising and its aftermath.

As a music student, Mahmoud studied both the oud and the viola, and his musical idiom mixes classical Arabic music with classical western form. For this opera, the mix proved especially atmospheric and otherworldly. He described the plot as a “hallucination,” so the action and the character development were both minimal – the music drove the meaning. Staging was also minimal, with few props and a movie screen in the back of the stage which presented a series of images, including film footage of the Egyptian uprising. This approach worked much better than a realistic one, because the drama happens less on stage than between the sung lines.

The central character, the ghost of a protester whom the regime had tortured to death, lurks until his grieving mother realizes that the regime’s official story (that her son had been run over by a car) is false, and she takes up his cause to inspire the people and to allow her son’s soul to be released to heaven. The moment it became clear that the official story was a lie, the music turned the knife just as the powerful moment at the end of the prologue to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, when the news comes back that – despite earlier lies – Tove, too, has been murdered.

The singing lines proved difficult for the cast, both in their oscilating volumes and in the music itself which did not quite stick to western tones. As the murdered son, Ilker Arcayürek sometimes slipped from singing to screaming.  Giulio Alvise Caselli, as the duplicitous politician, mastered his lines (the character was not sympathetic but the music also did not characterize him as evil) with bold and clear voice. The two lead female roles, Frances Pappas as the dead man’s mother and Laura Nicorescu as the politician’s young wife, acted out their roles with full emotion, understated but dramatic in the music.

The Landestheater’s young (20-something) and dynamic Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, did an unbelievable job keeping the complex strands linked and in time. This was especially so because the orchestra members were scattered all over the stage, in loges, and on the upper balcony; the stage was also built out over the orchestra pit and the front rows of the auditorium. Gražinytė-Tyla stood on the stage itself, on the far left, surveying it all and leading the performance with her sleeves rolled up and big dramatic arms shaping the difficult score like clay. Second only to composer Mahmoud, she was the star tonight.

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