SOMERVILLE — A little more than a year after Boston Opera Collaborative brought the local premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” the nimble and inventive company is doing a similarly valuable service by offering the first area production of “Sumeida’s Song,” written in 2009 by the talented and increasingly visible composer Mohammed Fairouz.
Adapted from the play “Song of Death” by the Egyptian writer Tawfiq El-Hakim, “Sumeida’s Song” tells the story of Alwan, a young man returning from Cairo to his home in an Egyptian village, where his mother, Asakir, impatiently awaits his arrival. She harbors a smoldering anger for a rival family in the village, one of whose members killed Asakir’s husband. Now Asakir wants Alwan, returning home after 17 years, to kill his father’s murderer.
But the college-educated Alwan wants no part of the blood feud that has consumed his mother. He wants instead to spread the good word of learning and science, and bring the village into the present. He will not kill, and Asakir, furious, disowns him and eventually sends his cousin, Sumeida, to exact a brutal revenge on her own son.
It’s an archetypal story – the clash of tradition and enlightenment, the pull of family versus the need for independence, unquestioning faith against the power of reason. The libretto is a strange mix of Baroque language and chillingly bloody literalism. So too, Fairouz’s score is a hybrid: often tonally centered, yet elsewhere drenched in dissonance. Most of all it is fluid, restless, and imaginatively orchestrated. The music and the libretto are weakest in the first movement, which labors to set up the back story. Once the characters begin interacting, the dramatic and musical intensity heat up quickly.
Still, you get the feeling at times during “Sumeida’s Song” that the conflicts that drive the opera are clashes of worldview, rather than among flesh-and-blood characters, and the drama is sometimes stilted. But there are many wondrous moments throughout, such as the moment after Asakir disowns Alwan when she lies on the ground and holds up the knife that killed her husband; the music, awash in quarter tones, swirls eerily around her.
The dramatic weight of “Sumeida’s Song” rests squarely on the character of Asakir, and the chief ingredient to its success on Saturday was mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher, who gave the role vivid, theatrical intensity and the vocal power it needed. She made Asakir’s transition from proud mother to hateful retaliator believable.
Soprano Jenny Searles sang beautifully as her sister Mabrouka. Baritone Matthew Stansfield did well as Alwan but lacked dramatic presence. Tenor Alex Schlosberg, as Sumeida, was challenged by some of the role’s higher reaches. Music director Andrew Altenbach led the complex score with confidence, though the orchestra sometimes covered the singers completely. Nathan Troup’s direction was minimal but effective, as were the sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat.
Whatever its weaknesses, “Sumeida’s Song” is an astonishing achievement for a composer then in his mid-20s. It unquestionably deserves to be seen and heard, and Boston Opera Collaborative deserves enormous credit for bringing it here.