Crazy Opera: A fitting Name for a Performance Flop

Nelida Nassar  07.26.2013

The Byblos International Festival 2013 edition garnered an exceptional roaster of international performers undoubtedly entrusting the artistic selection to an authority on various music canons and genres. The festival is praiseworthy and deserves many kudos for surmounting the difficult challenges and convincing the outstanding guest artists to travel to Lebanon despite the country’s current unsettling political situation and its geographical location, in between Syria and Israel.

The festival has offered two platforms to local Lebanese performances, the whimsical Crazy Opera and the unforgettable and vernacular Rahbani Summer Night. Crazy Opera was an operatic attempt, an opera satire that gathered exclusively Lebanese talents from the reputable Lebanese Orchestra, under the baton of Father Toufic Maatouk; the choir of the Antonine University; a group of singers including soprano Samar Salamé as main performer; comedian and television personality Tony Abou Jaoudeh as guest singer; and eight superb dancers. The choreography, stage and light design were signed Jean Sakr, the production Nadine Daoud.

Despite the involvement and efforts of over fifty artists, Crazy Opera not only fell short of the public’s expectations, but was also unwisely inserted in the festival’s program after legendary Paco De Lucia’s concert and before the Scorpions’ brilliant performance. This oversight questions the festival’s artistic selection criteria and could potentially jeopardize its credibility. We can already hear the pundits accusing this column of being harsh and not supportive of a Lebanese production. However, we refuse to apply different standards of critical thinking and review just because something is made locally.

The program of Crazy Opera was a hodgepodge of musical excerpts covering a very large time span, from the Renaissance to contemporary music, from Claudio Monteverdi to Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and Astor Piazzolla, interspersed with George Frideric Handel and Leonard Bernstein. The soirée also included a local colour and nod to Boghos Gelalian’s Oud & Vocalise, Asmahan’s Ya habibi taaala and Ziad Rahbani’s Adaych kan fi nas.

It was unclear how the repertoire was concocted, as it seemed a random, crazy mosaic. An argument could be made that some pieces have a spirit of togetherness. The pairing of Monteverdi’s 1636 Eighth Book of Madrigals Lamento della ninfa, where the nymph grieves her lost lover, with Violetta’s Libiamo in La Traviata is noteworthy. Both heroines sing love; the pain associated with it thus celebrating life. As is the pairing of Piazzolla’s 1979 Rinascerò called for – Benediremo la terra, terre nostri te lo giuro, che questo paese di nuovo, insieme si fonderà – the rebirth of love, rebirth of the land, Bless the earth, I swear that our lands, that this country will live again and reunite – with the Karaoke Cranberries’ Zombie. The latter’s lyrics tackle the pain associated with war and defeat. Rinascerò and Zombie exuded poetry, lyricism and beautiful patriotic hymns. Their allusion to struggles and strife resonated with Lebanon’s political reality and power to overcome such difficulties. Other pairings were just fortuitous, such as that of Gioachino Rossini’s Duetto buffo dei Gatti with George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare’s Da tempeste; or Bernstein’s Tonight or I feel pretty with Rossini’s Largo al Factotum. It was unclear what ties these lyrics or libretti together.

The orchestra was dignified and performed adequately. It was conducted with poise, despite some off tempo moments in Nicola Piovani’s La vita è bella and Astor Piazzolla’s Ave Maria. It was also the orchestra that regularly gained the spectators’ attention, whether with the effortless depth of tone of its strings, or the perfectly defined pianissimos. The choir sang varied and technically challenging music, attempting their best to achieve purity of tone, perfect intonation, and depth of feeling with mixed results.

Salamé’s rendition of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa was a pastiche. The soprano appeared as a virginal nymph, descending from steps that lead to nowhere, instead of fittingly rising from the water. Astor Piazzolla’s Rinascerò followed, that Salamé sang with conviction while stretching across the stage. She meowed and purred, growled and hissed onomatopoeically in Gioachino Rossini’s Duetto buffo dei Gatti with her counterpart Tony Abou Jaoudeh. The actor, recently anointed opera guest singer, pursued with Ennio Morricone’s Nella fantasia, where he traded vocal aggression for atmosphere, and leaned heavily on drama. His stab at opera pales besides his success as a comedian, a talent he best displayed in his rendition of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia’s Largo al Factotum. Salamé and three other female singers disguised as playboy girls in Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story’s I feel pretty exemplified artificiality and poor taste, freezing the vulgar. Salamé’s small, melodic voice did shine in La Traviata’s aria Libiamo. It was her best rendition of Bel Canto for the evening; her voice revealed range, suppleness and details of expression as well as the emotion associated with this duo. It sounded as if it had finally warmed up; alas this happened too late, at the end of a tedious concert.

The staging was an elaborate kitschy construction of white columns, platforms, stairs, balls, a standing frame with a paper opening, an unused empty projection screen, as well as a disproportioned table with theatrical candleholders and bowls of fruits. Despite the palpable effort, the staging excess and the out of scale elements detracted from Byblos’ majestic historical setting. This cartoonish intervention had no raison d’être as the Byblos castle backdrop, an architectural masterpiece with numerous archaeological columns, could have been integrated into a larger stage, avoiding unnecessary mannerisms and expenses. Projected surtitles on the unused erected screen as well as an overall “less is more” visual approach would have been more than welcome.

The eight dancers presented a well strung performance, particularly in Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango and in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story’s Tonight. Even though some of the dance segments were not well integrated into the overall opera, the dancers displayed layered and allusive lightness. The dance pieces developed from a quizzical display of arm movements to a high-voltage chaos event. In an exuberant welter of dance activity, classroom steps were fractured into stark lines of semaphore or warped into jittering, mercurial curves. The focus shifted continuously from the soloists performing centre-stage to the orchestra, positioned on the side. One dance piece in particular seemed out of place when the performers fluttered across the stage wearing bizarre white aprons that covered their heads and upper bodies, thus stifling their movements.

The word opera means, “work” in Italian, suggesting that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, acting and dancing in a staged spectacle. Crazy Opera encompassed all these forms, but in a disparate and non-integrated fashion, resulting in an anticlimax compared to all the other festival events. Many seats remained empty while numerous spectators left before the end. The audience clapped politely and intermittently, somehow enthusiastically after the one aria from La Traviata. There were no acclaims for encores.

Resorting to humor, this tendency to provoke laughter and provide amusement requires a keen understanding of human psychology. Crazy Opera, as its title suggests, attempted the humor strategy while raising questions. Why were other Lebanese vocal talents (soprano, baritone or tenor) not included in this performance? Was Crazy Opera just a parody with a few moments of derision, a veil or camouflage with the failed humoristic mask of a poor, ill-primed production and Salamé’s faltering operatic voice?

It is already difficult to remember Samar Salamé, but let us try. She was unknown as of 2009, an opera singer who emerged seemingly fully formed from the ether and soon enough revealed herself not to always be a fully formed opera singer. To counteract such fame, there is only so much Salamé can do. She boasts some amateurish videos, some live performances with the same repeated repertoire and some dreary-silly interviews which could have not helped her career.

Maybe Salamé is self-immolating. And if so, maybe it is from reluctance, not lack of talent. Sometimes you make choices, and circumstances force you to have to stick by them. Her success has been presented to the Lebanese public as a fait accompli, largely because of the intensity of ire she arouses, a result of the nepotism that propelled her career: anything overexposed this aggressively must be important? No.

To those who know Ms. Salamé’s superciliousness and have grown tired of the tawdry shows she has dragged the Lebanese audience to see already three times at the Byblos International Festival and at other venues around the country, this is not surprising. The danger unfortunately is that it presents the public with a skewed and false appreciation of how rich, noble and dignified the opera form is.

At some point the story of Salamé and her singing career could be told. In the meanwhile, the serially egotistical singer should take her voice troubles and personal compulsions to play the diva out of the public eye, away from stage, recordings, cameras and televisions, and concentrate on a period of withdrawal and re-evaluation of her talents as well as her voice style and capabilities. The only real option is for her to wash off the face paint, pack her gaudy ill-fitting stage wardrobe and attempt again in few years.

It is refreshing to witness collaboration amidst several, varied Lebanese musical groups, individuals and institutions. Although this time around, the result may have not been as successful as wished, such a positive endeavor is and will always be welcomed. Particularly if it fosters experimentation, exchange and inclusiveness of more undiscovered Lebanese talents, and not revolve around just a few artists. The city of Byblos that – been continuously inhabited since the fourth century BC, the city that gave the alphabet to the world, can become the beacon that attracts, promotes and protects as many of the young Lebanese artists, before loosing them to kinder shores. Let us together make it our common pride and mission to help discover the hidden talents before it is too late, and aim to create almost perfect and memorable performances.

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