The operatic adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s “Miramar” was met with no less enthusiasm when it played this month at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall than during its debut run in 2005.
The Dec.14-17 show had a decidedly short run that was largely overshadowed by the Opera House’s packed pre-Christmas and New Year’s schedule. “Miramar”, however, proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises ever served up at the Opera House. Fantastic music, world-class singing and acting and remarkable sets left almost nothing to be desired from this production.
“Miramar” is the brainchild of Sayed Higab and composer Sherif Mohie El Din. It was directed by Mohamed Abu El Kheir. The production, a joint effort between the Cairo Opera House and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, combined the talents of Cairo Opera Company stars, the Cairo Opera Choir, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The opera’s first performance took place in 2005 in Alexandria and Cairo on the occasion of Mahfouz’s 95th birthday, and was repeated this December to mark what would have been the Nobel laureate’s 100th year.
Impressive on a number of levels, “Miramar” is a skillful adaptation of one of Mahfouz’s more difficult work. Set in 1960s’ Alexandria, the experimental novel relies heavily on characterization and theme rather than plot. Although the lack of a cohesive plot and the dark and often inaccessible nature of the novel’s characters would seem to pose a major obstacle to the story’s successful adaptation into a stage performance, Higab and Mohie El Din managed to work with these elements to produce a momentous show.
The two-act opera is a contemporary look at the universal nature of exile.
The 1952 revolution has left the characters out of place and desperate at Miramar, a rundown pension in Alexandria. When a rare and charming girl arrives to work as a maid, conflict between the male characters spins out of control and a murder is committed. While the story is a look at the personal toll of the revolution, it critiques broader issues such as Nasser’s security state, property confiscations and the destruction and dispersal of an entire class of Egyptians during that period.
In the novel, the five main characters are presented as isolated monologues, a technique meant to reinforce the theme of exile and loneliness experienced by the characters. This is where the operatic adaptation departs drastically from the original work. The events narrated by the characters are played out live on stage, making the story more accessible and dramatic.
While purists might object to this departure from the author’s technique, the opera does manage to preserve the overwhelming sense of isolation and exile felt by the characters.
Aside from the sensitive and skillful adaptation of what seems to be a very inadaptable novel, “Miramar” breaks ground in other areas. It marks the first attempt to date to adapt a modernist Egyptian novel into an opera. It is also one of few successful attempts to create an opera delivered entirely in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. On a more practical level, the opera has the outstanding quality of addressing modern themes and is thus more accessible to a varied audience interested in everything from literature and politics to theater and opera.
From a musical perspective, “Miramar” offers a fresh and exciting score delivered by Egypt’s premier vocalists and musicians, overshadowing objections that could be made to the plot adaptation.
Now, local opera aficionados can only hope that “Miramar’s” second success bodes well for the introduction of similarly innovative new operatic works, but for now it is enough to know that Egypt’s contemporary opera tradition is far from lackluster.