Music by Georges Bizet. Libretto by Louis Gallet
Opera North's Eight Little Greats season
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Unlike the other "Little Great" of the evening, Pagliacci, Djamileh was completely new to me - not Cav and Pag: is that a first? - so I arrived at the Theatre Royal with no preconceptions whatsoever. I glanced through the synopsis: it's a kind of Arabian Nights story about a rich man of Cairo, Haroun, who keeps a slave woman as his bed companion for only a month, then changes her for another. Djamileh, however, falls in love with him and persuades his servant, Splendiano, who is in love with her, to allow her to trick him into thinking she is the next slave on the understanding that, if Haroun fails to love her because of her devotion, she would live with him.
The overture began and a man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, walked very slowly across the forestage, looking to neither right nor left. As both the overture (and the man) came to the end, the black front cloth rose to reveal - a scene that looked like it could be the artists' apartment in La Bohème or Jimmy Porter's flat, except that there was a TV surrounded by a multitude of videotapes downstage right where Haroun sat smoking. On the bed, asleep, lay Djamileh, and Splendiano was in the process of making a video-recording of her from all angles.
Very, very sleazy! An outward reflection, perhaps, of the sleaziness of the whole concept.
If you are going to re-interpret a classic play in this manner, you'd do some judicious cutting (of course you do! How many people today have sat through a full Hamlet?) so that there'd be no anachronisms or obvious clashes, or you'd give words new meanings in some kind of private argot, as Baz Lurhman did in Romeo and Juliet, but you can't do that in opera. As a result, we had constant references to slaves and freedom, and to the slave dealer (who was, by the way, the guy who crossed the stage so slowly during the overture).
It would, I suppose, have been possible to change slave dealer to pimp, but that would have changed the character of Djamileh and made her situation less painful.
It was a nice theatrical idea, but one which - like Christopher Alden's Pagliacci (for he directed Djamileh too - just didn't gell with the opera. Opera, of course, requires us to suspend disbelief even more than drama does, but this was, for me, a suspension too far.
What saved the night, however, were two good performances from Paul Nilon (Haroun) and Mark Stone (Splendiano), a nice cameo from Keith Mills as the Slave Trader, and an absolutely stunning performance by Patricia Bardon. If the Eight Little Greats season produces nothing else, it will have been worth it just for her Djamileh!
The tour continues to the Lowry, Salford Quays; the Theatre Royal, Nottingham and Sadler's Wells
Reviewer: Peter Lathan