In the shadow of the imposing Abdeen Palace in downtown Cairo, you might come across the exquisite El Gomhouria Theatre. Under the administration of the Cairo Opera House, this satellite venue boasts a remarkable façade with an affably welcoming interior. It was in this ideal space for a medium-sized audience that I took my seat for the first time, as the Gomhouria hosted two works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I struggled to think of another scene in Cairo that could have been more perfect for “The Impresario,” a comic singspiel written for a musical competition sponsored by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in early 1786.
Typically Viennese in the style of the time, the Emperor's competition was to go tête-à-tête: a German singspiel against an Italian opera. You may see parallels with the unmatched masterpiece of a film, “Amadeus,” whose plot explores the career of Antonio Salieri, an Italian court composer who was driven to insanity by the crushingly enviable genius of Mozart.
“The Impresario,” or Der Schauspieldirektor in German, is a stage work in the form of a singspiel, essentially a comedy in which musical numbers alternate with long stretches of spoken dialogue. The play is in one act, about an impresario (an opera director) and his hilarious comic-actor assistant who establish an opera company. They go on to hire a fading diva and an up-and-coming starlet. Squabbling sopranos, Sarah Enany and Ingy Mohsen were perfectly paired, managing the extended dialogue of the work with impeccably executed performances in both solos and unison movements. Special mention must go to conductor Hisham Gabr and director Hisham al-Tally who brought together this brief but challenging performance.
The second part of the performance was devoted to Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, one of his most popular orchestral works. At the time of composition, Mozart was under great strain with an enormous amount of work, but he was also aware of his personal obligations. During the summer of 1782, Mozart was trying to further establish himself in Vienna, mend relations with his fiancée, Constanze, and complete his opera, “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Overbearing father Leopold wrote to his son, requesting a symphony for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner of Salzburg. The composer replied to his father, “for you, dearest father, I will make the sacrifice,” and within a week he mailed the first movement for Leopold’s approval. Mozart’s father expected speedy results, and though it is doubtful the composer met Leopold’s deadline, the symphony resulted in one of his finest works.
The Cairo Opera Orchestra came in from the cold and delivered both a beautiful accompaniment to the six soloists during “The Impresario” and an explosive performance of the symphony. The organization and efficiency of the evening was remarkable and the music sublime. Egypt’s classical music scene is comfortably progressing into the season and I look forward to seeing more of what the Gomhouria can pull off and the music of those who are set to perform there.