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Vienna on the Nile

Cairo Opera House
12/31/2023 -  
Johann Strauss Jr: Eljen a Magyar!, op.332 – Wein, Weib, Gesang, op.333 – Unter Donner und Blitz, op.324 – Frühlingstimmen, op.410 – Die Fledermaus: “Mein Herr Marquis” – Kaiser-Walzer, op.437 – Agyptischer Marsch, op.335 – Rosen aus dem Süden, op.388 – Neue Pizzicato‑Polka, op.449 – Der Zigeunerbaron: “Einzugsmarsch”, op.327 – Wiener Blut, op.354 – Tritsch-Tratsch‑Polka, op.214
Franz Lehár: Die lustige Witwe: “Viljas Lied”
Josef Strauss: Feuerfest, op.269 – Dorfschwalben aus Osterreich, op.164
Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”
Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette: “Je veux vivre”

Larisa Stefan (soprano)
A Cappella Children’s Choir, Donia Akram (chorus master), A Cappella Choir, Maya Gvineria (chorus master), Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Francesco di Mauro (conductor)

(© Ossama el Naggar)

For decades, New Year’s Eve at the Cairo Opera House has been an incontournable or “must‑see” event, one that’s on everyone’s social calendar, in this bustling city of 22 million inhabitants. This year’s edition was understandably dominated by the music of Johann Strauss, whose waltzes and polkas are synonymous with this perennially celebrated winter evening.

This year’s event was the most subdued in years, thanks to the horrific events in nearby Gaza. Usually the musicians are dressed in seasonal garb (Santa, moose & elves); not this year. Despite the jubilant spirit of the music, this was a decidedly more somber event.

As usual, a coloratura soprano was the invited guest, adding vocal virtuosity to the general mirth of the evening. Romanian soprano Larisa Stefan delighted with her marvelous upper register. Most delightful was Olympia’s “doll song” or “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, where the usual antics of the doll being rewound by the maestro greatly amused the public. Stefan’s French diction was acceptable, but in the otherwise vocally excellent “Je veux vivre,” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, it was inadequate in conveying the needed emotion. Happily though, the “laughing song,” or “Mein Herr Marquis” from Die Fledermaus, was vocally dazzling, and Stefan’s acting was first‑rate. Her German diction was crystal clear, both in this aria and in “Viljas Lied,” from Die lustige Witwe.

Compared to past years, the soprano’s role on this night was not expansive. A mere four arias were offered, and there were no vocal encores – rather short‑sighted of the producers. Several in the audience were disappointed that the Frühlingstimmen Waltz was heard in its orchestral reading and not in the more exuberant vocal version. A pity, as Stefan’s voice is truly lovely, and her technique flawless.

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Italian conductor Francesco di Mauro played the familiar repertoire with brio. They were especially brilliant in Strauss’ Kaiser‑Walzer and Egyptian March, the latter being a most appropriate choice.

This seasonal event held one surprise: the prevalence of German heard at intermission and after the concert. There were certainly more than a few expats on hand, from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but the majority of the German speakers were – and here is the surprise – Egyptians. Why, you ask? It’s due to a large number of mixed European-Egyptian marriages with citizens of the aforementioned German-speaking countries. Moreover, German-Egyptians tend to intermarry, and they wear their heritage with pride. This situation is quite special at the New Year’s Concert, given the Viennese theme and Germans’ love of Christmas. In other events at the Cairo Opera, French (the favourite language of the older Egyptian bourgeoisie) and English (spoken by the younger generation) were the most diffuse foreign languages heard.

The Cairo Opera is in fact no longer held at the famed Khedivial Opera House, inaugurated in 1869 for the opening of the Suez Canal, but rather at a newer venue inaugurated in 1988. The older theatre was full of history: the sets for Verdi’s Aida, the opera commissioned by the Khedive (or, “ruler”) of Egypt to open the theatre, were delayed by the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Therefore this most Egyptian of operas finally premiered in Cairo two years later. The venerable opera house, where I saw my first opera as a child, burned down in 1971, a century after its opening. Interestingly, the 1,200 seat new Cairo Opera was a gift to Egypt from the people of Japan. Unlike the Italian-looking Khedivial Opera House, it was built in the Islamic architectural style, evocative of A Thousand and One Nights.

One reproach of the concert was its tendency to repeat the same rather tired Viennese repertoire; over sixty percent of this year’s offerings were also heard at last year’s concert. This needn’t be the case, as there’s no shortage of melodious waltzes and marches from the period. One need only look to Josef Lanner (1801‑1842), Franz von Suppé (1819‑1895), Richard Heuberger (1850‑1914) and Emmerich Kálmán (1882‑1953) for new programming ideas.

As in previous years, Strauss’s Blue Danube and his Radetzky March were the featured encores. The swaying of the public during the former and the rhythmic clapping during the latter added gusto to what was in the end a cheerful evening. In light of current events, it’s hard to imagine anything more à propos for the new year.

Ossama el Naggar



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