Lailo Soliman’s resourceful production of Bushra El-Turk’s Woman at Point Zero

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bushra El-Turk, Woman at Point Zero: Soloists, Ensemble Zar, Kanako Abe (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 28.6.2023. (MB)

Carla Nahadi Babelegoto (Sama) and Dima Orsho (Fatma) © Camilla Greenwell

Director – Lalla Soliman
Lighting – Loes Schakenbos
Costumes – Eli Verkeyn
Scenography, Video design – Bissane Al Charif, Julia König
Documentary audio fragments – Aida Elkashef

Cast and instrumentalists:
Fatma – Dima Orsho
Sama – Carla Nahadi Babelegoto
Taegŭm – Hyelim Kim
Accordion – Miloš Milivojevič
Recorders, crumhorn, fujara, duduk, kaval – Raphaela Danksagmüller
Shō – Chatori Schimizu
Kamancha – Faraz Eshghi Sahraei
Cello – Hanna Kölbel
Keyboard – Samir Bendimered

Woman at Point Zero is an hour-long opera by composer Bushra El-Turk and librettist Stacy Hardy, based on the novel by the great Egyptian writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Saadawi’s protagonist Firdaus, whom the author met in Qanatir Prison, becomes Fatma, a sex worker imprisoned for murdering her violent pimp, the latest in a long line of violent, abusive men that began with her father and uncle. Fatma finds freedom in her sentence and, to the bewilderment of her interlocutor, film-maker Sama, does not want it reduced. Instead, she wants Sama to make art, something beautiful, out of it.

The metatheatrical element is clear, meaningful, and nicely open-ended; it unfolds well in Lailo Soliman’s resourceful production. I shall admit to having doubts about certain parts of the work ‘itself’, though perhaps those doubts may at least partly be ascribed to my looking and listening for the wrong things, for wanting the work to be something other than what it was trying to be. The instrumental ensemble, onstage, becomes something akin to a multicultural Chorus, its encounters to my ears some of the most consistently interesting. Cityscapes and other locations, settings metaphysical as well as physical, are conjured up through those encounters, added to by Aida Elkashef’s documentary audio fragments in Arabic. If Raphaela Danksagmüller is especially busy, moving between recorders, crumhorn, fujara, duduk, and kaval, the sounds and blends of taegūm (large Korean bamboo flute), accordion, shō, kamancha, cello, and keyboard work like a dramatic cauldron of ever-transforming brew.

Vocal writing, notwithstanding highly accomplished and charismatic performances by Dima Orsho and Carla Nahadi Babelegoto seemed to me at times less convincing: often oddly ordinary and slipping between different registers (speech, arioso, song, etc.) in a way that sounded oddly clumsy, although perhaps that was the point. Ultimately, the pacing of Hardy’s libretto may have been at fault here, though it will surely have led many to discover the original novel for themselves. Disinclination to attempt something more traditionally ‘operatic’ must have been a choice, a perfectly justified one; I am not troubled by such lack of conformity, far from it. Doubtless others will have been less troubled by the flattening use of microphones than I was. That the quick pace, paradoxically, made for quite a long hour, whose ‘beautiful’ creation, to return to Fatma’s urging, seemed largely limited to the instrumental writing nonetheless seemed, on the face of it, a pity.

This production, by Ghent-based LOD muziektheater, co-presented as part of the Aldeburgh Fetsival and Subbak Festival 2023, has also been seen in Antwerp, Bruges, Aix, and Luxembourg. These Linbury performances are part of the Royal Opera House’s fourth Engender Festival, which is certainly succeeding in bringing together a host of voices, from within and without the world of opera.

Mark Berry

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