MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

Prince3

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

Prince1

photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

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photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

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