An exceptional women’s day celebration at the opera

What makes the Omani Women’s Day Celebration at Royal Opera House, Muscat each October such a must-attend event for many from the community is the variety of performances showcased. This year’s production on Wednesday evening was no exception, but the big attraction headliner in the second half was the guest appearance of Lebanese superstar and heartthrob, Wael Kfoury, in advance of his grand concert the following night. While the first set was by women musicians, part two was exclusively by men for women’s delight!
The show got off to a shaky start as there was bad traffic outside and people entered in dribs and drabs after the 7 pm kick-off.
Luckily it opened with the eight pipers and six drummers from the Royal Guard of Oman’s 4th Band Squadron, processing through the auditorium from all four corners to assemble on stage with their Drum Major. There was a distinctly Scottish flavour in the modal music chosen, with a couple of Omani Traditional compositions for pipe band. They were loud enough not to be distracted by the considerable movement and ‘phone cameras at work, but their short set ended in barely ten minutes as they filed off, playing the Welsh folk song, Calon Lan (A Pure Heart).
Next up was the celebrated Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra Ladies Piano Trio, led by the wonderful Jokha al Naabi, who performed Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.2 at the Al Bustan Palace in April 2016.
Their choice of repertoire was perfect. They began with the lovely Russian chestnut, “Black Eyes” arranged by Ferraris, with its beloved melody on cello, which immediately caught the audience’s attention. It was followed by Frank Bridge’s ‘Valse Russe’. Its beautiful, gentle theme was passed from piano to cello, played confidently by accomplished musician, Hanan Al Masroori and then to violin, with exquisite subtlety. Their third choice was the contrasting perpetual motion of Smetana’s joyful ‘Dance of the Comedians’. It features an impossibly fast virtuoso violin part, executed with commendable panache by Sophia Al Busaidi, and effective pizzicato punctuation, although it has extremely tricky intonation challenges.
The guest appearance of Egyptian harp legend, Manal Mohieddine and her nine-piece ensemble, Anamel Sharkeya, was an absolute pleasure. Manal is a well-established musician who studied classical styles with French harpist, Giselle Herbert, which she combines with traditional Arabic music from her roots in Cairo. She began a Rahbani brothers composition, ‘Touched by the Breeze’, with an enchanting slow solo, bewitching her listeners with her mesmerising flourishes. She then launched into the rhythmic section with Nay player, Hani al Badri, as the audience clapped and even sung along. In dark green Arabic costume, Manal cut a striking figure among her male musicians. She introduced the familiar melody ‘Aziza’s Dance’, played on accordion by the dexterous Bishwa Shinoda Rizkallah, it sounded like an Egyptian film score. The next selection from ‘Asmahan’ suggested a French Waltz with its warm, romantic blend of accordion and cello. Finally the much loved Egyptian Folk number, ‘White Dove’ concluded in a captivating arrangement. It started with a haunting Nay solo, and fiddle melody played brilliantly by Shady Eid Ibrahim, followed by the whole band in a lively syncopated rhythm with percussive harp chords. The audience just had to clap along until the final cello statement from Aladdine Abdel Mota, and a dramatic fast sweep from harpist Manal, brought Part One to a euphoric climax.
There was excited banter in the foyers over coffee during the interval, before the much-anticipated appearance of the Lebanese superstar, Wael Kfoury. He did not disappoint. With his four backing singers, six percussionists, four fiddles, cello and Qanoon, the acoustic musicians were balanced with kit drum, electric bass and guitar. His 14-piece group was on a roll for their two-night appearance at ROHM.
As Wael Kfoury entered, there was an uproar from the mostly female audience. His repertoire is all Love Songs. With such names as ‘Law Hobna Ghalta’ (Our Love is Wrong) or ‘Bahebak Ana Kitir’ (I Love You So) he has rightly been dubbed the ‘King of Romance’.
His incredible stage presence and charismatic personality transcend the words, music and vocals in his performance. He sings with utter passion and compelling delivery throughout, but his amazing high register is steeped in incredible quality and control. He is master of expressive Arabic ornamentation with the rich timbre rarely faltering. ‘Kouni Ana’ (My Everything) or his signature song, ‘Sa’alouni’ (They Ask Me) never failed to elicit gasps and sighs of satisfaction, even though the underlying rhythms in most songs were similar. However, one particularly slow song in the middle – like ‘Min Habibi Ana’ – was especially evocative as a heart-felt love-song. Credit should go to his talented band-leader and electric-clarinet (!) player who shone with short solos in nearly every song, but sadly his name was not provided. Stage management and music production by brilliant sound engineers were topnotch, but still, before the end, people started to leave.
The Pipe and Drums Squadron filed on for the curtain call, followed by the ROSO Ladies Piano Trio and the Anamel Sharkeya Ensemble for a Finale which incontrovertibly billed Manal Mohieddine as the darling of the night, and a tribute to the abilities of all Arabic women everywhere.

TEXT BY GEORGINA BENISON
Photos by khalid al busaidi