Conflict, Confectionery and Bloodshed at Cheltenham 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edward Rushton, Babur in London: The Opera Group, ensemble für neue musik zürich,  John Fulljames (director), Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 7.7.2012.

Babur: Omar Ebrahim
Nafisa:Kishani Jayasinghe
Saira: Annie Gill
Mo: Amar Mucchala
Faiz: Damian Thantrey

Debussy, Delius: Philip Smith (narrator), Wellensian Consort, Southbank Sinfonia, Neil Thomson (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 7.7.2012. (RJ)

Debussy: Danses sacré et profane
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (arr. Andriano)
Delius: Incidental Music to Hassan

The day was dominated by two very different works for the stage. The first, an 85 minute opera on the contemporary issue of urban terrorism, had a libretto by the Indian writer Jeet Thayil, a score by a British composer based in Switzerland, and a multi-ethnic cast supported by a Swiss ensemble of musicians. Babur in London was premiered in Zürich earlier this year and is now touring the UK.

The plot centres on four Islamist militants plotting a bomb outrage in London who have turned their quarters into a fully equipped bomb factory. By the end of the opera two of them have got blown up. The fifth character is the ghost of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, who attempts to dissuade them from carrying out their plan, and though he makes an impression on one of them, Saira, the other three are very dismissive of him. They regard Babur as a reprehensible boozer and opium addict – quite out of touch with the purer, more ascetic brand of Islam they espouse.

It may be an age thing, but I identified far more closely with the easy-going Babur, despite his many foibles, than with the colourless and characterless young terrorists. Omar Ebrahim as Babur clad in his sumptous garments dominated the stage whenever he came on, and seemed eminently likeable even if the real-life figure had been something of a tyrant. I felt far more concern about where his next bottle of wine was coming from than for the fate of the young jihadists.

Not that any of the performances were weak. Annie Gill as Saira who ends up in Babur’s clutches was exemplary as the woman torn between her ideals and her feelings for Faiz, and she put over her words well. There was some excellent, expressive singing, but it was not always easy to follow the gist of the arguments; surtitles would have helped. Another drawback to my mind was that we were plunged in medias res just before the atrocity is committed. A more protracted build-up to the event and more emphasis on character development at the outset would have facilitated a better understanding of the plotters’ motivations.

I have no objection to musical pieces on serious or contentious themes – Berg, for instance, did an excellent job with Wozzeck. But despite the obvious care bestowed on the creation of this opera, the point of Babur in London was lost on me…… unless it was an endorsement of the “eat, drink and be merry” approach to life.

James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan is set in Old Baghdad of Arabian Nights fame – not the modern city where car bombs kill people every other day. It received its premiere at Darmstadt in 1923 – eight years after the writer’s death – and went on to enjoy a successful run of 281 performances in London’s West End in 1923/4. One wonders whether the play’s success could be attributed to its plot or to the incidental music composed by our second composer with a 150th anniversary this year, Frederick Delius.

One hears very occasional performances of the Suite from Hassan, but this was a rare opportunity to hear the full score performed by the youthful Southbank Sinfonia conducted with considerable insight by Neil Thomson. The different sections were linked by a helpful summary of the plot narrated by Philip Smith. (I suppose a full scale production of the play was too much to hope for at the Cheltenham Music Festival! But how about the BBC, Britain’s National Theatre – or even Kevin Spacey of London’s Old Vic – getting in on the act?)

The Prelude had a somewhat Debussyian feel – but that may have been because the harpist Rhian Hanson’s impeccable playing of his Danses sacrée et profane before the interval was still fresh in the memory. But then a more distinctive Delian sound emerged conjuring up visions of the Orient despite the fact that – unlike Flecker – Delius had never been to the Middle East.

The hero of the play is an unprepossessing confectioner who hopes to woo the widow Yasmin by injecting his sweets with a magic potion. However the lady in question is more attracted to the bearer of the confectionery, Hassan’s young friend Selim – much to Hassan’s annoyance. Later this unlikely hero rescues the Caliph Haroun ar Rashid from the rebellious beggars led by Rafi, for which he is amply rewarded and elevated to a high position while the beggars are condemned to death. He later learns the reason for the rebellion: it’s because the Caliph has abducted Rafi’s beloved Pervaneh. When he secretly hears the lovers discussing their fate in prison and eventually deciding that death is preferable to separation, he is so moved that he begs the Caliph to spare their lives – and then loses his temper when the latter doesn’t. For such effrontery he is stripped of his titles and forced to watch the execution in his own garden. The play ends with the poet Ischak persuading Hassan to join a group of pilgrims and “take the golden road to Samarkand”.

This summary, I feel sure, does not do justice to Flecker’s work, but I can confirm that the music was an unalloyed pleasure from start to finish. The orchestra, much smaller than the forces Delius was accustomed to writing for was joined by the Wellensian Consort, formed from alumni of Wells Cathedral School, which won the BBC Choir of the Year Competition in 2010. Their first entry – an unseen women’s chorus as Hassan falls asleep by a fountain – made the spine tingle.

It was not clear from the programme notes whether the Dance of the Beggars was an additional passage written by Percy Grainger. However, it is the music that counts and there were a number of lively, vigorous (and sometimes terrifying) choruses, such as the Chorus of the Beggars and Dancing Girls, and the War Song of the Saracens to which the Consort did full justice . An unnamed soloist gave an electrifying account of the Muezzin’s Song at Sunset, and later Neil Thomson and the Sinfonia created a sense of menace and despair in the Procession of Protracted Death. The evening ended on as positive note with the pilgrims singing with fervour as they disappeared over the horizon.

I was able to track down one person who had heard Hassan before and she pronounced herself delighted with the performance. While this may have been a vision of the Orient as seen through Western Eyes, like the Orientalist paintings of Holman Hunt and David Roberts mentioned in Christine Riding’s absorbing talk which had preceded the concert, it still has the ability to inspire shock as well as to instill calm. Alas, Delius’ reputation has suffered since the death of his great advocate Sir Thomas Beecham, but powerful performances such as this one by the Wellensian Consort and Southbank Sinfonia make a strong case for his reinstatement.

Roger Jones