Cities of Salt, Linbury Studio, review: Lack of plot fails to make desert bloom

Still a work in progress, we do not yet know what kind of opera this will be

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The Independent Culture

The concert premiere of five scenes from Zaid Jabri’s new opera, Cities of Salt, was an event of great potential significance. As the first opera by a Syrian composer, with a Syrian soprano – Talar Dekrmanjian – in the leading role, and based on a story filled with echoes of recent Middle Eastern history, it covered bases nobody had thought of covering before.

Set 70 years ago in a thinly veiled Saudi Arabia, the novel by Abdelrahman Munif on which this work is based deals with the Gulf states’ great unmentionables.

This concert was designed to have a diagnostic function: to see how a work-in-progress was shaping up, and to allow potential sponsors to assess it. As performed by the Southbank Sinfonia and the Borough Chamber Choir under Michal Klauza’s direction, Jabri’s score emerged as both intricately constructed and highly expressive – a source of constant pleasure and surprise.

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But the vocal lines are still declamatory rather than dramatic, and the plot, with its threaded-through love-story, has not yet been released from its incubation in the narrator’s script. We do not yet know what kind of opera this will be.