Egypt's classical music world launched new season 2016/2017

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 4 Oct 2016

Numerous companies performing classical music, opera and ballet have launched the new 2016/2017 season in Cairo and Alexandria

Cairo Opera Company's season opening gala (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

A new artistic season implies new artistic adventures, and Egypt’s classical music scene is no exception. The journey has already begun: since the start of September, artistic bodies in Cairo and Alexandria have been launching their programmes.

Dedicated to its long Saturday concert tradition, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra – the oldest ensemble operating under the Cairo Opera House (founded in 1959) – opened the season on the first Saturday of the month, 3 September. 

Dubbed the Season’s Opening Gala, the evening was conducted by Ahmed El Saedi, the orchestra’s principal conductor and music director. It offered a selection of orchestral compositions and operatic arias. The concert featured a guest: the young, multi-award winning opera Slovak mezzo-soprano Daniela Banasova, who took the stage alongside the bass baritone Reda El Wakil, the soloist of the Cairo Opera Company. The concert transported listeners from Bizet to Verdi, and from Rossini to Chapi, including violinist Hossam Shehata in Massenet’s Meditation (from Thaïs) and closing with the timeless audience magnet Ravel’s Bolero.

The second concert of the season by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, dubbed Amadeus I, was also conducted by Ahmed El Saedi. The evening focused on Mozart, presenting Italian soloist Saskia Giorgini in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in C major, K. 467. A globally renowned interpreter of Mozart’s work, Giorgini is the winner of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 2016; she also earned the Second Prize, the Mozart Prize and the Audience Prize at the Prix d’Amadèo de Piano in Aachen, Germany. That evening also included Beethoven’s Leonore I Overture Op. 138 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor Op. 95 “From the New Word” in the second half.

As it turns out, however, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra gala was but the soft opening of the Opera season. A few weeks later, on Thursday 22 September, the Cairo Opera Company, the Cairo Ballet Company, the Cairo Opera Choir and the Cairo Opera Orchestra (under the baton of its principle conductor David Crescenzi) presented “The Opening Concert of the Cairo Opera House, Season 2016-2017,” directed by Abdalla Saad and introduced by the renowned (currently retired) Egyptian tenor Hassan Kamy. In his short speech, Kamy underlined the importance of the event and the Cairo Opera as a whole, its various companies as well as the presence of this art on Egypt’s cultural scene.

Cairo Opera Ballet Company participate in the Cairo Opera House's season opening gala (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

The evening opened with the dance Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Dalilah, choreographed by Valentin Bartes. This was followed by a series of arias sung by soloists of the Cairo Opera Company. 

Soprano Iman Mostafa, also the artistic director of the Cairo Opera Company, was the first to take the stage; she performed In quelle trine morbide (In those soft lace curtains) from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, introducing a sense of melancholy where “a cold fatal silence” overwhelms the title character’s soul. Bored with the luxurious life she shares with her brother, she longs for her love Chevalier Renato des Grieux.

Even more dramatic was Come dal ciel precipita (How the shade falls from heaven), Banco’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth, performed by bass baritone Reda El Wakil, also the artistic director for music, opera and ballet sector.

It is in this aria that, together with Banco (Banquo in Shakespeare), we begin to understand the prophesies pronounced by the witches – predicting Macbeth’s rise to power and the many calamities it entails.

The mood changed in Cupid’s presence, which would become increasingly obvious throughout the evening, as mezzo Jolie Faizy performed the Chanson Boheme from Bizet’s Carmen, followed by Escamillo’s explosive aria Votre toast, je peux vous le render (Your toast, I can give it to you), a celebration of the feminine flirtatious glance as well as Spanish toreadors, passion and jealousy. “It is the celebration of people with heart!” So the words of the aria describe the scene. 

Soprano Mona Rafla performed Catalani’s Ebben! Ne andrò lontana (Ah well then! I shall go far away) from La Wally, in which the protagonist, Wally, opposes her parents to follow her love.

A different kind of amorous courage was demonstrated by soprano Rasha Talaat as she sang “I do not desire gems or pearls, nor do I seek others’ affections. Your look is my delight, your kiss is my treasure,” the popular waltz Il Bacio (The Kiss) by Luigi Arditi. The song was embellished with a simple dance scene by the ballet company’s soloists Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia. In her turn, soprano Dalia Farouk whose “heart surrendered to love” captured Juliet’s “sweet flame” in Je veux vivre (Juliet’s Waltz), Gounod’s arietta from Romeo and Juliet.

A few other arias by other singers (Hisham El Guindy, Moustafa Mohamed, Elhamy Amin, Ibrahim Nagui, Abdel Wehab El Sayed) allowed the Cairo Opera Company to showcase a variety of elements, mostly from their returning repertoire. 

Cairo Opera Company's season opening gala (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

As much as the evening focused on iconic arias, its success was due in large part to the creative imagery provided by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. In the segments where the ballet dancers did not participate, the singers were mostly left to an empty stage while sharp lights with strong a palette accompanied the screening of architectural elements upstage. This simplicity of means would not have been a problem had the scenography, props and mise-en-scene been properly handled.

On the other hand, celebrating the Cairo Opera Company’s established singers, the evening lacked fresh young stars. In my conversation with Iman Mostafa, however, she said the young singers would have several opportunities to present their skills to the audience during the upcoming season, whether in small concerts or Verdi’s La Traviata. 

While we are yet to discover the detailed programming of the Cairo Opera Company’s season, Mostafa explained that the upcoming months will include many interesting concerts as well as returning operas: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and the season’s classic, Aida. She also revealed that the company is preparing for one more opera, with information to surface within a few weeks.

For its part the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, apart of supporting the gala, has its own repertoire set for the next few months. 

The company has already opened its season last week, with Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus, choreographed by Valentin Yelizariev, a work which premiered in 2010 and was performed again in 2014. The ballet was staged on 28, 29 September and continues to be performed between 3 and 5 October.

Erminia Kamel, the company’s artistic director, confided that the season will also see the traditional Nutcracker around Christmas time. The ballet, performed on annual basis in Cairo, will travel to Alexandria for the first time this year. 

Another ballet, Coppelia (by the Romanian choreographer Valentine Bartes), which premiered in 2015 to wide acclaim, is also scheduled to visit Alexandria for the first time. The hit of the season will be Carmina Burana, however: an older ballet in the company’s repertoire which has had to wait many years for its revival. This is something to look for. Finally, as Kamel pointed out, the company will also work on a new production of ballet Cleopatra.

Anja Ahcin as Phrygia and Ahmed Yehia as Spartacus in Spartacus ballet by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Archival photo, 2014. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

No account of the new season would be complete without mention of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Centre’s contribution. 

In its season’s inaugural concert, which took place on 24 September, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr featured Polish coloratura soprano Jadwiga Kirschanek. 

This special evening opened with the Beethoven’s Fidelio overture, before Kirschanek performed Gliere’s unique Concerto For Soprano and Orchestra Op. 85 and Strauss’ Voices of Spring (Valse Op. 410). The evening also included Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, Op. 15. No. 2. and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” Op. 90.

Motored by a high dynamism and expanding its artistic forces continuously, in the upcoming season, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s classical music repertoire will include many interesting events, from symphonic and choral programs to concerts tailored for children and young audiences, music appreciation lectures, special occasion concerts and performances by the BA orchestra as well as guests such as the Kremarata Baltica Chamber Orchestra. 

Both the Bibliotheca and the Cairo Opera House will continue to host the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcast of the world renowned operas and soloists. The MET opera season for international audiences is to launch on 8 October with the 100th transmission in the series history, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

In its season’s inaugural concert, which took place on 24 September 2016, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr featured Polish coloratura soprano Jadwiga Kirschanek. (Photo: still from the video footage of the concert)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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