IF I CAME BACK....
AS THE MOOR FROM KHALIFAT
A series in OPERA magazine, where contributors imagined they might return as a favourite operatic character
May be it is the proximity of ENO's new Kismet ("Baghdad, don't underestimate Baghdad, Baghdad, you must investigate Baghdad"......we'll see how that goes down in 2007, Mr. Director) that has got me thinking about a time when orientalism could be innocent and fantastical, and the children's version of the 1001 Nights could be read without uncomfortable associations coming to the fore. An encounter, aged seven, at a Royal Albert Hall children's concert, with Rimsky- Korsakov's Scheherazade left an indelible impression: as a music student I found, in an austere looking Melodiya box of four black discs with a misleadingly utilitarian yellow cover, an operatic and balletic expansion of that chestnut, but stranger by far, the same composer's Mlada (1889).
This is the opus that engineers a collision between opera and ballet, with a title role that is a dead mute balletic heroine, which derives from Auber's La Muette di Portici, a convocation of strange Baltic gods, a reaction by the composer to hearing Wagner's Ring for the first time, but looks forward to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in its appealing illogic and extravagance. The stage directions are boggling; in which opera is there a Divination by Horses (two groups specified, one black, one white), an instant and violent snowstorm during a witches sabbath, or a mountain splitting in two to reveal the court of Cleopatra? Where the devil, Chernobog, is a male chorus instructed to sing through loud-hailers? Now, I don't have the legs for Cleopatra, nor do I want to be a horse - though the legs are closer - but there is a fleeting little moment in Act Two, the market scene, that I might be able to manage, because, it would stretch me as a person. You see, being brought up in those cosy little southern counties of England, I never learned how to haggle. On a memorable tour with nearest and dearests, I recall standing on the on the ancient Silk route in Samarkand, watching enviously as my companions, a mixture of Europeans and Americans launched into the spice market, and relished their playfulness of exchange with the stallholders - the eye contact, the come hither will- you won't-you of bargaining, that I couldn't quite cope with, because I, literal chap that I am, needed to know the real price.
In the hurly-burly that opens Act Two of Mlada, a melee of fish-sellers, and more, to a fabulous perpetuum-mobile that sounds astonishingly prophetic of Rimsky's star pupil, Stravinsky: unexpected metre changes, piles of superimposed fourths, tangy folk-inflexions and the like, there is a little moment of stasis that occurs twice, where a tenor voice wheedles us to buy cloth. It is a moment that is straight out of Scheherazade's Kalendar Prince, but sung, an incantatory melisma that has snake charmer associations, that makes that little point on the back of my neck go tingly whenever I hear it. He is the moor from Khalifat, and he wants to sell some cloth, and so beguilingly, you would plump for yards of the stuff and never have to resort to Scarlett O Hara's curtains. I would need a tenor voice of purity and flexibility, but not too effete, so as to show that I could transcend my limitations and drive a hard price, more Sergei Lemeshev than Ivan Kozlovsky - not that either of those illustrious Soviet tenors would ever have glanced at such a tiny little comprimario moment. But I would relish my miniature spot-lit moment, when the bustle stops and the allure of imaginary fairy-tale Eastern promise breaks through for a moment.
The pizzicato strumming starts, that dominant minor ninth chord, so beloved of Rimsky, and later Ravel and Szymanowski to connote mystery prepares me; I start on that delicious E flat, and go lower, bit by bit, maybe as far as a G sharp, but no lower, as dignity has to be maintained, no matter how playful the ensuing exchange, and, of course, outgoings have to be covered.
© Julian Grant 2007. This article appeared in the July 2007 edition of OPERA Magazine.