An instrumental version of Mozart’s classic opera buffa “The Marriage of Figaro (of 1784) is being staged this week at the Cairo Opera House. Opera frequenters will be surprised not to be treated to the usual lavish costumes, opulent scene changes, or the hoards of chorus members flooding the stage; but that’s the charm of the performance.
I’d never seen the orchestra at work in opera shows, and I must admit it s a meditative, at times transcendent, experience to witness this large and talented group in full view on stage. The scores of violin and cello bows in motion appear like winged creatures.
Replete with strings, reeds, harpsichord and a charming base drum, the company graced “The Marriage’s overtures, drawing the listener closer and closer, exalting Mozart’s score. In terms of Egypt’s national companies, it seems the orchestra possesses a rare gift: the art of subtlety.
This tender experience changes slightly when the opera singers are introduced to the stage. Though not without merit, when watching them, you can t escape the glaring reality that the female performers are much better singers than the male ones. It is not simply that the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos possess greater range; it is also a question of a certain training the male performances don’t seem to have properly received.
The baritones largely fail to rise to the demands of their roles. Where they are endowed with the task to darkly color the music, provide vocal texture and the dynamic capacity to carry their voices through the orchestra, the baritones flail from flat to inaudible, occasionally burdening duets with their female counterparts.
Each, however, has a certain redeeming quality. What Elhamy Amin, for example, in the role of the Count, lacks in vocal virtuosity, he makes up for in sheer dramatic acting and stage presence. His convincing performance ranges from compelling to somewhat sweet. As he is clearly one of the younger members of the group, his marriage to Gihan Fayed, who plays the Countess is mismatched visually. Fayed herself is flayed with even more indiscrepancies. For example, though supposedly the richest of the characters, she appears casual on the stage in a sparkly galabeyya, while the rest of the cast don ball gowns and tuxedos. Luckily Fayed makes up for all of this with her truly beautiful voice – perhaps the strongest of the group.
Baritone Emad Adel in the role of Figaro, a role written for a bass voice, does best in his solos. It is perhaps the mismatching of his voice to the role that does his character a disservice.
Tenor Hany El-Shafee in the smaller role of Don Basilio wonderfully weaves his higher ranges into the voices of the female singers. With subtle orchestral accompaniment, El-Shafee’s voice provides the harmonic strand necessary to enrich choral numbers that move the audience.
In their roles, Hala El-Shaboury as the young page Cherubino and Hanan El-Guindy as Marcellina give stellar performances: each is a mezzo-soprano powerhouse of sorts. In the singing department, however, it occasionally appears that their talents are not being properly used: El-Guindy’s booming voice appears too large for her role; El-Shaboury, though modest, performs so beautifully that she often flattens her duet counterparts.
Lastly, in the role of Susanna, Mona Rafla is quite good. She and El-Shaboury, as well as with El-Guindy, treat the audience to rich female duets. Her voice is stunning in a flirtatious duet with Amin.
Yet, to watch Rafla perform is to fall into nearly the same level of visual distractions present within full staging of the Opera.
Of course one can hardly fault her; she is an opera singer after all. Her comedic role requires somewhat flamboyant execution. However, her voice is not nearly as complicated as her facial expression and the way she coyly arranges and rearranges her shoulder covering; she seems intent on filling out details within this barebones presentation. It is as if Rafla has decided to make a complete theatrical presentation of the work despite a lack of accouterments.
The problem is the rest of the cast complies on different levels. Some half-heartedly play along, others, straight faced, focus on their music stands. Rafla appears at times like the most enthusiastic child in a game of make believe. Pulling others into her world, she sometimes finds partners in her emotional drama, other times simply expose a lack of conviction within her playmates.
Overall the vocal ensemble simply pales in comparison to the orchestra. No surprise then that the wordless interludes are the highlight of this musical evening.
Catch “The Marriage of Figaro tonight, 8 pm, at the Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall.