The music of Mark Morris’ Layla and Majnun is unmissable, says Alison Croggon. But she’s not so sure about the dance
Every culture has a story of star-crossed lovers. In the European tradition alone, we have Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Tristan and Iseult. China has the Butterfly Lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, or there’s the luckless Punjabi couple Heer and Ranjha, or the Náhua legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. It seems that these tragic tales of thwarted passion, which dramatise the anarchy of desire in conflict with the strictures of society, hold a profound attraction.
Layla and Majnun, on at the State Theatre as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is the classic Central Asian version: a young man and woman fall in love when they are at school and are cruelly separated by their parents. Layla is forced to marry someone else, but keeps herself chaste; Majnun (which means “possessed”) writes poems about his beloved, insisting that true love exists in transcending physical desire. For this reason, some people argue this tale belongs to the Sufi mystic tradition that concerns itself with the struggle towards enlightenment, and which bears strong resemblances to the love mysticism of mediaeval Christianity.
According to Wali Ahmadi, associate professor of Persian literature at the University of California, Berkeley, the first formal rendering of Layla and Manjun, adapted from oral anecdotes in earlier Arabic sources, was by the Persian poet Nezami Ganjawi (1140-1209 CE). Nezami’s work influenced scores of later versions by a host of poets in other languages, and it’s been the subject of films in Hindi, Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi.
Layla and Majnun is a 1908 opera by the Azerbaijan composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (apparently co-composed by his brother Jeyhun). They combined western and eastern instruments and influences to create the Muslim world’s first opera, with a libretto based on the poem by the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Fuzûlî. Fuzûlî was himself intimidatingly talented: his dîvân (collected poems) are written in three languages, Azerbaijani, Arabic and Farsi, and he was apparently well versed in Ottoman and Chagatai Turkic literary traditions as well as mathematics and astronomy.
Which is to say that this work emerges from a profoundly rich and multiple tradition that enfolds a deep and often conflicted history of thought and culture. Like the Silk Road itself, the trade route that connected Europe and Asia, this production brings together western and eastern influences into an epic rendering of Hajibeyli’s opera. It’s an admirable example of cross-cultural collaboration, but it often left me feeling that the dance was superfluous.
Under Mark Morris’s direction, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Yo Yo Ma’s intercultural Silkroad Ensemble and two superstars of Mugham singing, father and daughter duo Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, come together to render this classic on stage. They perform a hour-long version of the original three hour opera, prefaced by a short medley of Azerbaijani music performed by four members of the Silkroad Ensemble.
The text (translated in the program) is a series of short lyric poems that focus the emotional intensity of the story. Hajibeyli’s score has been expanded and adapted with more western instruments, but the stars are the voices. What’s stunning about this performance is the music: it’s a rare chance to plunge into a major work from a tradition that’s seldom seen on our stages, and to experience the vocals of two singers who are masters of their art.
Qasimov and Qasimova are seated in classical court poet style on a raised platform, with the musicians seated around the stage. Behind them is the dramatic backdrop of a huge abstract painting inspired by Persian miniatures by Howard Hodgkin, who also designed the stage and costumes. The music incorporates vocal improvisations, the breaking sob of Mugham song that rises and falls in an iridescent waterfall of emotional expressiveness. Morris’s choreography often suffers in comparison to the sheer splendour of the music.
The company is divided along gender lines, men in blue and women in orange, and Layla and Majnun are played by different couples in different scenes, with the other dancers acting as witnesses, gossiping about the scandalous love, or as other players in the drama such as the parents. The constantly changing couples reinforce a sense that this story of doomed lovers is archetypal, rendered again and again through different bodies and different traditions.
The opening scenes, rhyming the courtly echoes of the music, draw strongly on classical ballet and court dances, but often the movement seems wan, even banal, a merely decorative impulse. As the dance brings in other influences – gestures from Indian or Arabic classical dance or folk dance – it becomes more complex and more interesting, and there are genuinely moving moments. But even so, as I left I wondered why the dance was there: for my money, it simply didn’t argue hard enough for itself, and at its least convincing blurred the power of the opera.
But the music is indisputably glorious.
Layla and Majnun, by Uzeyir and Jeyhun Hajibeyli, directed and choreographed by Mark Morris. Scenic and costume Design by Howard Hodgkin, lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Music by Uzeyir Hajibeyli, arranged by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen. Mugham vocals Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. State Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 13. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available
Partly surtitled or includes dialogue, some background music and/or sounds