I pass by these walls, the walls of LaylaAnd I kiss this wall and that wallIt’s not Love of the houses that has taken my heartBut of the One who dwells in those houses -poem attributed to Qays ibn al-Mulawwah
The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music opened tonight with a huge cast in the premiere of the oratorio mundi, Leyla & Majnûn, by Armand Amar. It was the perfect work to open such a festival, and much appreciated by the packed house.
From the very beginning drum solo by a petite member of the Shanghai Percussion Ensemble perched on the roof of Bab al Makina, you could tell that this was going to be a superb festival occasion. And it just kept getting better. What was a great tribute to the organisers and the performers alike was the universal acceptance of the work. From local Moroccans to visiting South Africans and Americans, the praise was the same - a stunning opening night.
The story of Leyla & Majnun is one of those tragic love stories like the much later Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are forbidden to marry. Qeys, who becomes known as Majnun when he goes mad in the desert, is a familiar figure in Islamic folklore, along with Leyla herself. The tale has been told since the beginning of Islam in various languages and across several continents. But it's not just a love story; it represents divine love and man's struggle to attain it.
In this production, the story was first narrated by Nacer Khemir, with subtitles in French and English projected onto the walls. Khemir also wrote the libretto along with Leili Anvar and John Boswell. The orchestra accompanied the narration, superbly conducted by Didier Benetti.
This was indeed a truly collaborative exercise. The artistic director Armand Amar was assisted by John Boswell.
|HRH Princess Lalla Salma at the opening|
After the narration, it was then the turn of the soloists to sing their poems in Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Hindi and Mongolian. The audience was enchanted by the Mongolians Enkhajargal Dandarvaanchig (also known as Epi) (pictured above) and the gloriously costumed Gombodorj Byambajargal.(pictured below)
Annas Habib of Fez (pictured above) was among the performers - he sang in Arabic. Other Arabic singers were Naziha Meftah and Raza Hussain Khan, who also sang in Urdu. Salar Aghili and Ariana Vafadari sang in Persian, and Marianne Svasek in Hindi.
Our resident musicologist Christopher Witulski adds - Bruno Le Levreur stood out among the impressive cast of performers. His contra-tenor (singing in the high female soprano range) was controlled, lyric, and graceful. When his moments approached, the bed of music around him lowered into simple, classical accompaniments. The purity of his tone emphasized the balanced melodies and heightened the aura of elegance that spread across Bab al-Makina.
Bruno Le Levreur
The composition itself straddled that difficult line, bringing Arabic musical ideas and stylings into Western classical space. Amar negotiated the space between the melodically-driven "Eastern" elements and the harmonically-centered "Western" by often privileging the modes, melodies, and ornaments that are so common here in Morocco and elsewhere in the Arab world. Phrases were long, exercising the listeners' patience, rewarding them with beautifully rendered cadences and closures. Non-Western scales pervaded the work, but they were often underpinned by similarly expansive harmonies from the strings or pulsing rhythms from the deep percussion.
It is easy to become used to hearing vocal acrobatics in the form of high, fast, or powerful notes and sounds, but the featured performers tonight challenged, and ultimately extended, expectations. By including vocalists from unique traditions across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the oratorio focused on exploring the breath and sound of the human body. In doing so, it attempted to make concrete the connection between spirit and body, of the sacred of religious experience and the sacred of artistic expression.