By Georgina Benison, Muscat:  It has become tradition at the Royal Opera House, Muscat to close the season with an Arabic production from Lebanon which embraces singing and dancing, and is based on a topical subject. This year the renowned Rahbani Brothers — or more correctly the Rahbani Dynasty, as 5 members of the family are involved — revisited with a Musical Play, “On the Land of the Gypsies”.
The show was liberally laced with political innuendo, satire and parody, disguised under a veil of humour, with beautiful singing from the leads and stunning dancing in energetic styles from the Levant. The leading light of the company is Ghadi Rahbani; Writer, Composer and Producer of this show, which was Directed and Orchestrated by his brother, Marwan Rahbani. Although it was a Musical, the two performances last weekend were accompanied by a score — sometimes typically Arabic in style and sometimes Western, even Bernsteinesque — which was recorded by the Kiev Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Sirenko. The solo singing was all pre-recorded along with the orchestral take, something audiences at ROHM are not used to. The dialogue, however, was live on stage and this posed a difficulty for non-Arabic speakers. The subtitles went by too quickly to grasp, and the translations were unclear or muddled in an effort to rhyme. It also meant one had to read a lot to keep up and miss the action on stage.

Scenery was innovative and evocative without being fussy. Gypsy caravans and tents were placed in a hilly setting against a projection of Lebanese farmland and distant mountains. Other projections by set designer Myriam Kordahi included the interior of Abou Raad’s stolen car workshop (played roundly with almost slapstick humour by Assad al Haddad) where one of the most memorable moments of the evening was set: A brilliant stroke of genius introduced the sensuous ‘Tango of the Mechanics’ with dancers dressed in overalls, suggesting a loose connection to Salvador’s Latin America. In the second Act the interior of the new Hotel, “Le Nouveau Naori” was decadently amusing.
The curtain opened with rich Brazilian-Lebanese businessman, Salvador Hussein, returning to Lebanon delightfully in a Golf Buggy masquerading as a Jeep. He had come to claim the land which he had recently inherited from his grandfather, only to discover that it is inhabited by a community of Gypsies who have no intention of leaving! Salvador was sung beautifully by Ghassan Saliba, explaining this production’s four-month success at ‘Casino Du Liban Theatre’ in Beirut. He falls in love-at-first sight with the daughter of the tribe’s Sheikh Mosabbah El Zaza, played and sung amusingly by Paul Sleiman.
The beautiful Zeina was portrayed perfectly by Aline Lahoud. She has the voice of Fairouz and cut an agile, beguiling figure on stage, flirting and finally falling for the stranger. Along with Salvador came his right-hand man, the wry realtor, Geryes Abou Dakn who played the negotiator for reclaiming the land, but was quick to change sides or see an opportunity to suit his own pocket. Pierre Chamoun was excellent and articulate as the larger-than-life side-kick with cunning and flair. Syrian characters in the mix were the rival antagonist, a criminal fugitive who is paid by the gypsies for security. Ziad Said was superb as the jealous, burley Sari who stabbed his ‘fiancée’ Zeina in a conflict, and ended up deeper in trouble. Karim Rahbani playing his buffoon, scooter-riding dim-witted brother, added much light relief to the darker moments in the garage. An unexpected twist revealed that the haggish fortune-teller, Laura, played and sung movingly by Maya Yammine, was actually Zeina’s mother from an illicit affair with the Sheikh years before.
Costumes were convincingly designed by Papou Lahoud Saade, whether the swirling colours of Gypsy dresses or stylised garb of Western businessmen. The whole show was a contemporary romanticisation of Gypsy life, complete with clarinet and Bazookas, jugglers and beggars on stage. Imagine the sleazy, vibrant cast of ‘Carmen’ crossed with the message from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, where the fiddler appears sporadically beside the caravan to foretell the doom of a shattered community; a society which looses its identity. The crowd scenes were all brilliantly choreographed by Felix Harutunian and Sami Khoury, assisted by Danielle Rahbani who performed lead dancer in some scenes to rapturous applause. Four children of cast members appeared on stage as endearing gypsies, and cute dancers with Ghassan Saliba in his final, compelling ballad.

Twists and complications abound in the story. Salvador finds himself drawn to the lawless freedom in the Gypsy lifestyle, local authorities are corrupt, Sheikh Mosabbah runs for parliamentary election so is open to bribery, and the gypsies are all granted Lebanese nationality. Geryes quickly facilitates the building of a 5-star hotel which hosts the 10th International Gypsy Conference — an opportunity for some caricatured gypsy dances from Hungary, the Balkans, Turkey, Argentina with an amazing Tango-duet Piazzola pastiche, Syria and of course Lebanon. A spoof election results in no winner and so Salvador is invited to become the leader of the gypsy clan and marry Zeina. The play concludes with a crucial question: what is more important, the Land or the People? And the answer suggested: home is in the heart and should be carried wherever one roams.
The home Muscat music-lovers carry in theirs hearts will be closed for the summer and will re-open with a Spanish theme in September. Loyalty and talent are qualities which will prevail in the new season at ROHM — which is awaited with baited breath.

– Georgina Benison