Thursday, 21 July 2016

Adwan - Kalîla wa Dimna (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Moneim Adwan - Kalîla wa Dimna

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Zied Zouari, Olivier Letellier, Ranine Chaar, Moneim Adwan, Mohamed Jebali, Reem Talhami, Jean Chahid

ARTE Concert - 10th July 2016

It's great that the Aix-en-Provence festival seeks every year to extend the reach of opera not only through challenging new looks at familiar works, but in their efforts to ensure that the performances are broadcast on radio and TV throughout the world. What is just as important is that they also commission the writing of new opera and works for younger audiences, and not always in a style that you would recognise as belonging to the musical language of contemporary music and opera, but also works that derive from folk and the traditional music of other cultures.

That involves a certain amount of risk taking and the results might not always meet expectations. Although last year Ana Sokolović's Svadba was worthy and generally well-received, personally I found the subject of the preparations for a young girl's wedding and its treatment using no instruments but just women's voices to be lacking in depth and not best suited to the operatic medium. Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna likewise has an unconventional approach to its musical style and instrumentation - at least in terms of what we are used to accepting as opera - but it is much more successful in its presentation and impact.

Partly that's because the original story of Kalîla wa Dimna has a strong pedigree; an almost two thousand year history as one of the most famous of Arabian fables. It's the simplicity and the purity of the storytelling that it is important to get across, the nature of the telling itself as important as the message it has for us, and the operatic medium has all the necessary tools to do this better than most. Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna manages to achieve this perfectly through a small arrangement of instruments that are capable of tremendous depth of expression in their interaction, and through the extraordinary and not typically operatic use of the singing voice.

Dimna is an ordinary man, one of many courtiers, but he has dreams of making an impression and becoming a confidante of the king - a butterfly who wants to be an eagle, as the narrator, his sister Kalîla describes him. And the king does have worries. Cut off from the outside world by a protective mother, the king confides to Dimna his fears of the people rebelling, pointing to what he sees as threats in the words of the writing of the charismatic poet Chatraba. When Dimna introduces him to the poet, the king's eyes are opened to the troubles of the world and his people. Unhappy with being replaced in the king's confidence however, Dimna convinces the king that Chatraba is weaving magic in his words to suggest that it is their ruler is to blame for their troubles.

The moral of the story is made clear using animals (the jackal is one of the main predators evoked here) that are traditional to the story's telling, but the narrator also brings in poetic metaphors to warn of the dangers of the outcome of what transpires - "If you burn a vine, a thousand flowers will bloom in its place" or "If you kill a poet, he will be reborn in a thousand songs". The poet Chatraba also evokes the power of words and song, and through them the idea of freedom of expression - "Let's raise our voice so that it can carry our ideas far", he says, but the king fears that "Cries of anger always begin from a song".

It's the kind of idea and language that works well in opera if it can be matched to a correspondingly powerful use of music and the music composed by Moneim Adwan is very persuasive. Using a small group of five musicians playing in the Arabic form rather than the traditional western style, this is nonetheless wholly operatic in treatment and in expression. The string instruments include an Arabian qanun which gives an exotic edge to what mainly feels like continuo, but the interaction with violin, cello and percussion give it a more expressive dimension. A clarinet provides a more lyrical layer on top of the rhythms, but the other instruments are highlighted and provide solo accompaniment for additional emotional expression.

When it comes to emotional expression, the strength of Kalîla wa Dimna lies in its appropriate and remarkable use of the singing voice. Kalîla's short narrated interludes are in French, but elsewhere nearly all of the singing is in the traditional Arabic folk style of delivery. It's a style of singing that is every bit effective in its colour and range as the more traditional operatic style. It has a inherent lyricism and storytelling character of its own, but it is also capable of heightening individual sentiments in declamation, as well as finding dramatic drive and harmony in exchanges between characters that complement and weave together.

Directed by Olivier Letellier, the staging at Aix-en-Provence is a marvel of directness and simplicity, one that is totally in line with the nature and expression of the work itself. All the singing performances are impressive, particularly from the composer Moneim Adwan who sings the role of Dimna himself, the singing style allowing for individual expression and dramatic nuance. The same can be said of the musicianship from the small ensemble under the direction of violinist Zied Zouari, which carries the intent of the story and at the same time its sense of wonder. Kalîla wa Dimna might not be opera in the familiar sense, but it is opera in the purest sense.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert