Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Babur in London - UK premiere

Edward Rushton's opera Babur in London, which received its UK premiere last night (12 June) at the Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke, is the result of an interesting collaboration. The librettist is the Indian poet, novelist and musician Jeet Thayil (who lives in Dehli) and his collaboration with Rushton (who lives in Switzerland) was supported by the British Council and Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Arts Council in India). The Opera Group co-produced the work with Anvil Arts, Basingstoke and Opera North and it will be seen in India.
Omar Ebrahim as Babur, from Edward Rushton's Babur in London
Omar Ebrahim as Babur

Babur in London premiered in Switzerland and tours to Leeds (14, 15 June), Birmingham (18 June), Oxford (24 June), London (26, 27, 28 June at the Lilian Baylis Studio as part of the City of London Festival), Hull (5 July) and Cheltenham (7 July, as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival). The production will be touring to India in November/December this year.



Thayil's libretto takes four politicised Islamic terrorists in London in the 24 hour run up to their suicide bombing mission. Then he pits them against the ghost of the Mughal Emperor Babur (Omar Ebrahim), founder of the Mughal empire and himself responsible for the slaughter of many infidels.
Omar Ebrahim as Babur, Damian Thantrey as Faiz and Amar Muchhala as Mo

The four terrorists, Nafisa (Kishani Jayasinghe), Saira (Annie Gill), Mo (Amar Muchhala) and Faiz (Damian Thantrey) are committed. But they are surprised at Babur's attitude to their cause and his lack of support for their suicide mission with its slaughter of women and children. Babur is a bon-viveur who combines a love of drink and opium with his religion. A heated debate starts up, in which Mo and Babur exchange different views of what it is to be committed to Islam. Mo is so involved in the debate that he does not escape in time when their hideout is raided and is killed by the police. The others escape.

Besides being terrorists the four are linked by emotion. Mo and Nafisa are a couple and Saira loves Faiz. At the start of the opera Faiz and Saira make love for the first time, out side of marriage, so that Saira can experience it before she dies the following day. When Mo is killed Nafisa, who is pregnant, does not really recover and has a long emotional scene that approaches a mad scene.
Omar Ebrahim as Babur and Amar Muchhala as Mo

Faiz feels he needs to protect Saira so he sabotages her back pack which contains the bombs, but she has seen him and swaps her back-pack with Nafisa's whilst they are sleeping. Thus protecting Nafisa and her  baby. Faiz and Saira die in the suicide bombing.

In the final scene, Saira is now transformed and has joined Babur who seems to have been playing a double game and has chosen Saira as his companion in eternity. The two share a pipe of opium

Thayil's libretto is poetic and full of interesting ideas. It has a strong didactic theme and you need to be able to hear what the characters are saying, it is an opera full of debate. Rushton has set the text in a robust form of recitative which sometimes flowers into arioso. Though Thayil includes explicit songs in his text, Rushton's setting rarely allows the music to flower into full song like mode though when the characters get passionate they do.

Rushton's writing for voice is sympathetic and singable, seems tonally rooted, with links back to Britten. But surrounding this the five musicians of the ensemble fur neue musik zurich played a haunting web of sounds; music which at times sounded magically free of pulse. Sometimes spare, sometimes surprisingly rich, Rushton also used silence and left voices unaccompanied. The accompaniment didn't so much support the voices as surround them and catch them in a net. All the drama came from the vocal writing, the instruments seemed to live on a parallel plane.

James Fulljames's production placed the musicians on stage, watching the action as they commented on it. Designer Sarah Beaton's set consisted of a wall of plastic bottles (a reference to be bottles used to hold the explosive in the terrorists back packs); this was then magically lit by lighting designer Matt Haskins.

In an interview published in the programme, Rushton talked about the way that Babur and the terrorists' worlds collide and mingle. I would have liked more aural help with this, some device to differentiate them more. Ebrahim gave a strong and mesmerising performance as Babur, apparently engaged with his drink and his opium, but more aware of the terrorists than he let on. I just wish his music had been a little more seductive.
Annie Gill as Saira

The four singers playing the terrorists gave terrifically strong, committed performances. Rushton allows each of them a moment or so, so that we get to know them. Gill was fully believable as Saira, the terrorist who first sees Babur and who is, ultimately both seduced and duped by him. Saira is in love with Faiz (Thantrey), and Gill and Thantrey had a ravishing love scene in which the other two singers (Jayasinghe and Muchhala) provided off stage vocalism to add to the aural web surrounding the two on stage.

This was a device that Rushton used two or three times in the opera and in the final scene, the sound world was given a radical shift by the addition of the offstage voices of Thantrey, Jayasinghe and Muchhala.

Muchhala was gripping as Mo, the highly politicised English Asian. His dialogue with Babur was one of the most riveting things in the opera and one wished that Rushton and Thayil could have kept this sense of dramatic dialectical dialogue up. Jayasinghe was heartbreaking in her long scene after Mo's death.

But though the four singers gave believable, committed and heartbreaking performances, their music didn't really go on a journey. Rushton's magic web of sounds didn't go on a dramatic progress and I missed the sense of edgy committment which the drama seemed to need. The music did not seem to reflect the gritty reality of the terrorists lives and progress towards death.

There were significant passages where one needed to hear the words. Despite some excellent work on their diction, it was sometimes just not possible for the cast to get sufficient words over and you had to strain somewhat to follow the dialogue. Perhaps one problem lay with the libretto which, though poetic, seemed rather complete in itself. I kept coming back to the idea that Thayil's libretto might have worked as a stand-alone piece, without being sung - definitely a fault in a libretto.

Only in the curious last scene did music and drama seem to come together. Rushton used the addition of the three off-stage voices to transform the aural style so that we did get the feeling we were in paradise. Gill was similarly transformed as Saira, with her hijab gone and a fright of hair. Uncomfortable with Babur's tricks she finally allows herself to be seduced and we are left with the two drifting off on an opium cloud, Rushton's music working its magic to the end.

I have nothing but praise for conductor, Tim Murray, and the hardworking musicians; Rushton's instrumental writing was almost without pulse, hypnotically beautiful when it worked, but tricky to bring off. The writing was also, at times, very spare and Murray and his team brought an elegant beauty to the score. As I have said, I feel that the music would have benefitted from not being so elegantly beautiful at times, but the musicians realised Rushton's intentions quite brilliantly.

Fulljames's production was admirable for its clarity, and he and his cast brought an intensity to the performers which did a lot to keep the drama going. With such vividly committed performances from all concerned, it was a shame that the drama didn't quite take us on the dramatic journey that was needed.

Audience at the Haymarket, Basingstoke, was small but enthusiastic. Given the subject matter, I thought that it was a shame though that the production had not engendered more interest with local people. The Opera Group's intention with the piece was to spark debate and they are working with the Quilliam Foundation on a complementary series of activities relating to the opera.

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