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Georgina Benson celebrates Oman’s heritage at the Royal Opera House Muscat.
No one knew quite what to expect of the eagerly anticipated open-air show, produced by the Royal Opera House Muscat, Celebrating Oman – the Great Journey. There had been rumours and mutterings of amazing sights, with flying trapeze artists and massive projections of Omani icons but what transpired last weekend exceeded expectations and delighted scores of lucky residents.
A huge, 3D aerial extravaganza transformed the auditorium into a wonderland of what best describes the Sultanate in all its glory; past, present and future.
This was the first production totally created by ROHM, in collaboration with the Italian theatrical designer Namaste Europa, and the sheer size and variety of the performance must have been a logistical headache to put together.
The format was of a huge storybook inscribed by the Omani calligrapher, Suliman al Subhi, in eight chapters, which takes you on the “journey” of the title through various aspects of Omani history and culture.
And the narrative is a long poem by the contemporary Omani poet, Saleh Mohammed Al Fadhi, recited by Issam al Zadjali and Rasha Shanoon al Balushi as storytellers in colourful traditional Omani dress of yesteryear.
The show opened with projected images of the people, land and sea of Oman on the walls of the opera house and the open Book was accompanied by beautiful Omani music played by the Takht Ensemble – Nay, oud, violin, kanoon, bass and daff – from the Oud Hobbyists’ Association, who were perched high above the galleria on a terrace.
This dissolved seamlessly into Act Two, with the delicious aroma of burning frankincense drifting by, and then – a sight to behold – a gigantic incense burner emerged from somewhere above the rooftops, and sailed across the sky.
Below, a “corps de ballet” held fire-sticks and danced to ethereal sounds. Meanwhile, from the top of the opera house, two other dancers swung fire-sticks in celestial circles to form heavenly catherine wheels against the night sky.
A further assault on the senses arrived in the form of a flying dhow in Act Three (Sea Travels) followed by a dancing Sinbad character, turning and swimming high above our heads on a trapeze.
Teams of fishermen hauled two boats below, and others strained to climb the rigging against projections of sea-scapes in the Opera colonnades, which evoked the legendary navigational skills of Omani sailors through the centuries.
This was concluded by members of the Nojoom Jaalan Ensemble for Omani Folklore enjoying a traditional Sur fisherman’s dance.
More spectacular still came “The Silk Road”, with two women on the trapeze – suspended on long white silks –turning above a veritable caravan of goods being pushed across the marble floor to form a souk of lamps, gold and fabrics from the exotic East against the present- day arcade. The backing track was in an evocative Indian mood but alas the programme gave no clues to the origins of the pre-recorded music.
The troops from Italy brought amazing skills to the splendour of the show, from stilt-walking – fighting Oryx, dancing on stilts in the ballet scene later – to astounding flag-juggling with trumpet fanfare in “Oman’s Renaissance” – with a nod to the medieval Italian Renaissance – under the national emblem, two giant crossed swords and a crown, reigning down from on high.
There was more, much more to describe; above on the high wire, below from the performance artists and photographic transformations of the opera house facade into castles, deserts, trees and wadis.
But let’s continue on the journey: many parents in the audience were waiting excitedly for the penultimate chapter, when rows of young children from Al Sarooj and Al Amal Schools, beautifully dressed in Omani National costume, entered the arena under a magnificently inflated sphere featuring a beautiful girl’s face, marching, dancing and running; symbolising the new Omani march towards the future, oasis of peace – The Land of Tomorrow.
The Finale was heralded by Nessun Dorma, sung live from the roof-top of the opera house porch by tenor Giancarlo Monsalve.
The aria was a reprise of the Royal Opera House Muscat’s inauguration in the presence of His Majesty in October 2011, with a magnificent production of Puccini’s Turandot.
All the performers of the evening – including three camels from the Royal Camel Corps – returned to the arena, ablaze with fireworks for one lasting, memorable farewell to one of the most awe-inspiring conceptions imaginable.
A clever twist is that Turandot was conducted by Placido Domingo in that first performance, and the great tenor is to return to Oman to sing in his own concert at the Royal Opera House this week.