With this first English language translation of one of the hundreds classical music reviews that the multi-talented Fawzi Karim contributed to the Arab press over forty years, The Dreaming Machine wishes to commemorate his passing on 17 May 2019 and contribute to the dissemination of his critical insights in all fields of art.
A Forgotten Opera from Granada
The Italian composer Donizetti inspired by the Arab history in Andalusia
By Fawzi Karim
This long forgotten opera by the renowned Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was finally discovered and the libretto exhibited in Seville for the first time, since it was last shown in the composer’s homeland, Italy in 1828.
Amusingly, the opera is entirely based on an Arab tale inspired by the history of Arabs in Andalusia, when it was the last bastion of the Islamic civilization and the final green patch upon which the rivalling Arab Muslim brothers shed their last drop of blood. Their quest driven by corruption and greed of their governments which subsequently led to the relinquishing of their land and destiny at the hands of their enemies.
Both the anonymous librettist and the composer Donizetti, did not seem to abide by the tragic rules of history, and like the Romantic western Orientalist artists and writers of their time, they were infatuated by tales of love and revenge. A tale that inhabited many a palace. None more so than the Alhambra in Granada, which at the time was festering with conspiracies and charged with hatred, both eventually bringing about its downfall at the hands of the Spanish in 1491.
Based on the novel written by the French writer Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, in this opera entitled Alahor in Granata, the poet approaches the historical reality in the struggle for power between the Al-Ahmar Dynasty, which ruled Granada in its final throes of power, and the Marinids.
The events narrated in the opera take place inside Alhambra castle in Granada, in the days when it was sustaining the attacks which preceded its downfall at the hands of the Spanish.
The title role Alahor belongs to a young aristocrat from the Abencerrages family who, with his sister Zobeida, has planned to flee and escape the scheming Zegrie family, who is conspiring to execute them.
But the Sultan of Granada falls in love with Zobeida and decides to spare her life even though she is from a rival family.
Alahmar, a member of the Sultan’s family, objects to this union with the ‘enemy,’ so the enamoured Sultan now finds himself surrounded by hatred emanating from these two warring factions. It is only his desire for a happy life for himself and his subjects that brings this tale to a happy ending that entails him marrying his beloved Zobeida and embracing the rival family.
It is an Arab love story which brings to mind the plot of Romeo and Juliet and the feud amongst the families of the two lovers. Love stories of these nature often beguiled the world of melodrama.
Earlier, Donizetti had dedicated his opera Zoraida di Granata to another tale also inspired by the southern Spanish city and the al-Andalus civilization which provided the setting for the opera. This early notable work brought recognition to him.
The composer remained under the spell of Spanish history long after the departure of the Arabs from Spain. In fact, no less than approximately nine other operas were composed on this topic.
Other composers such as Luigi Cherubini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Conradin Kreutzer, Baltasar Saldoni, Emilio Arrieta, Felipe Pedrell were also charmed by Granada and some of their works were inspired by Arab love stories as well.
Donizetti was dedicated to composing operas, with the exception of few choirs and string quartets. He did not live a long life as he fell victim to mental illness brought about by contracting syphilis. He died at the age of fifty one, leaving an unprecedented body of work with over 60 operas, thus surpassing the number composed by the renowned composers of the Romantic era.
The critics saw his prolific artistic production as works made in haste, only composed for the benefit of the stars of the day. But, especially of late, time proves that the selected operas unveil a profound talent for drama and music. A number of his operas do in fact stand alongside the distinguished works of composers the likes of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.
I am referring here especially to his wonderful operas: L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale and Maria Stuarda .
In Donizetti’s newly rediscovered opera Alahor in Granata retrieved to us from his early works, we encounter a context full of drama and life, in spite of Alahor’s unconvincing transformation from a character consumed with crime and revenge to one taken by feelings of brotherhood and love.
The real drama may not lay in the events but in the dramatic construction of the melody clearly manifested in the operatic duets, trios and choruses and even soliloquy.
When the Sultan sings in moments of peace, he is releasing his hope amid an ocean of crushing events:
‘ O yes! Granada leave behind
For peace has spread its beautiful wings above you
You will no longer see after today
Banners of the enemy fluttering afar
Nor will their hordes tread your land
No, nor shall we know fear again by the harshest of Spaniards!’
The highlight of the opera remains the dramatic duet of Alahor and Zobeida, as well as Zobeida and the Sultan love duet.
The Spanish performers did justice in their delivering of the emotional intensity their roles required. The Opera was performed at the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville in 1998 which was finally recorded on a CD by Al-Maviva.
The roles: Alahor: Simone Alaimo – Bass-Baritone. Zobeida: Patrizia Pace –Soprano. The Composer opted for a feminine vocal for the role of the Sultan which was performed by Vivica Genaux (Mizzo-Soprano). Musical Director: Josep Pons.
Translated: Lily Al-TaibLily Al-Tai: trained painter, translator & interpreter. Wife of the late poet Fawzi Karim.
 Before its 1998 Seville reprisal reviewed in this article by Fawzi Karim, the last time the opera was performed was in Palermo in 1830; the score and libretto disappeared for 150 years after that last 19th century performance, with a revised copy of the score being discovered in Boston in 1970, in the attic of the Boston Symphony Hall, and an autographed copy of the score found a few years later in Palermo.
Fawzi Karim (Baghdad 1946 – London 2019) was an Iraqi poet, writer and painter. He was educated at Baghdad University and worked after his graduation as a teacher for 9 months before embarking on a career as a freelance writer. He left Baghdad after the second coup by the Baath party and lived in Lebanon from 1969 till 1972. He lived in London since 1978. He devoted his life to four fields: poetry, Literary criticism, painting and classical music. He wrote in Arabic, his mother tongue, and very rarely in English. He translated his poems into English, and the English poet Anthony Howell reformulated them in consultation with the author. He devoted much of his time to classical music, listening and reading, and he regarded it as the highest form of Art. It was the source of inspiration for his poems and his life.
He wrote many books on music (In Arabic): Music and philosophy, Music and mysticism (Forthcoming); Music and Poetry (2014); Music and painting (2014); Gods the Companion, a Musical life (2010); Musical virtues (2002);
He wrote a monthly article on ‘Classical Music and the art of Listening’, published in ‘Al sharija’ magazine.
He published more than twenty-three books of poetry, including: What poetry is, but a Slip of The Tongue (2018); The Empty Quarter (2014); Night of Abel Alaa (2008); The Last Gypsies (2005); The Foundling Years (2003); Poems, Two volumes (2000); We do not inherit the Earth (1988);The Stumbling of the bird (1983);
He is also the author of sixteen books of prose, including: Who is Afraid of The Copper City, a novel (2018); The Thinking Heart, The Poetry Sings, But Thinks Too (2017); Poet of Maze and Poet of Banner, The Poetry and the Root of Hatred (2017); The Pastures of Cactus, short stories (2015); Gods the Companion, on music (2009); The deterioration of the 60s (2006); Diary of the End of a Nightmare (2005); Return to Gardenia (2004); The Emperor’s Clothes: On Poetry (2000)
His poetry is translated to many languages, including French: Non, l’exil ne m’embarrasse pas (Lanskine 2010); Continent de douleurs, (Edition Empreintes, (2002) Swedish: Epidemiernas Kontinent (2005); Italian:I Continenti Del Male (Collana Porta Maggiore, I Poeti 2014) English: Incomprehensible Lesson (Carcanet 2019); The Empty Quarter (Grey Suit Edition 2013); The Plague Lands and Other poems (Carcanet, 2011)