El asombro de Damasco

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated January 14th 2002

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El asombro de Damasco
by Pablo Luna
libretto by Antonio Paso and Joaquín Abati

® recommended recording

Since its premiere at the Teatro Apolo in Madrid, on 20th September 1916, El asombro de Damasco ("The Wonder of Damascus") has been amongst Luna's best-loved works. Paso and Abati based their plot on a tale from the Arabian Nights, though the story of the virtuous woman besieged by importunate and powerful suitors is familiar from many literary traditions. The libretto naturally emphasises the lightweight operetta-comedy possibilities, but El asombro is not without shafts of satire and deeper passion. The result, curiously, has points of similarity with some of W. S. Gilbert's work for Sullivan, notably The Mikado, where a familiar world is clearly visible under an exotic surface.

This kinship, aided by the cosmopolitan sophistication of Luna's score, perhaps accounts for the fact that El asombro de Damasco was given an unlikely shot at London' lucrative West End theatre market, and on 10th November 1924 it became the first full-length zarzuela to be performed in London, under the title The First Kiss.

Rosario Leonis as Zobeida, El Asombro de Damasco
Rosario Leonis created Zobeida

The production at the New Oxford Theatre only achieved only 43 performances, despite - apparently - some stiffening from Luna's brand-new hit Benamor, and it was to be another 75 years before any zarzuela was again seen on the London stage¹. Coincidentally, Gilbert's composer collaborator Sullivan had based his last completed operetta The Rose of Persia (1899) on the same original story.

Luna's score takes full advantage of the 1001 Nights setting, with triangle, drums and harp adding piquancy to sensual, alhambrismo harmonies and colourful woodwind solos. There's plenty of humour, too, notably in the jaunty Persian March of the Cadi's song, tricked out with trumpet, bassoon and saxophone. Later the famous scene for Zobeida and the not unsympathetic Grand Vizier introduces a darker, romantic strand into the tapestry. Memorably accompanied with harp and pizzicato strings, this romanza,"Esto que pides aquí", is the undoubted highlight of the score, as effective for a heroic baritone as for the bass intended by Luna. Indeed Luna's melodic gift is at full power almost throughout El asombro de Damasco, and several other numbers are scarcely inferior to the famous romanza and duet. One in particular deserves mention - the fine Grieg-like melody in Act 2 given to old Ben-Ibhen as he pleads with the heroine for a dance. This is a moment of generous inspiration, another place where two-dimensional comic operetta is momentarily ousted by something rather deeper.

Act 1 - a public square in the market quarter of Damascus, in the time of the Caliph Suliman. There is a brief Preludio, representing dawn over Damascus, with a Muezzin-like tenor solo at its heart in praise of woman. The scene comes to life as people bustle into the market square. Fahima, young proprietor of a shop for perfumes and potions, sells her wares to a group of women, whilst next door the old Doctor Ben-Ibhen attends to his patients. At length Fahima sings of the power of her potions (Coro primero, solos y Canción: "Yo he descubierto un perfume"). Two Dervishes request provisions from Fahima for a pilgrimage to Mecca, which she teasingly grants, and they retire into her shop. A veiled woman appears, luxuriously attired. Approaching Fatima, she reveals herself to the perfumier as her friend Zobeida, married to Oman, a rich merchant in Mosul. The distressed woman tells Fahima that her husband has lost his fortune due to some bad luck in his business ventures, and has fallen ill. They are near to ruin, and she has come to Damascus to ask one of her husband's debtors, Doctor Ben-Ibhen, to repay an ancient debt of one thousand gold dinares, money urgently needed to cure his sickness. Unfortunately, no written contract exits to confirm the debt, so Zobeida must rely on Ben-Ibhen's loyalty and past friendship to her husband.

Fahima takes Zobeida to meet her medical neighbour and the Doctor has no hesitation in acknowledging the debt and his willingness to repay it. First, though, he would like to see the face of the woman to whom he must give the money. Zobeida raises her veil, and Ben-Ibhen is astonished by her beauty. To the women's indignation he proposes to deliver up the money to her that very night, provided she agrees to accept it in his back room, by moonlight, repeating his offer before disappearing into his shop and leaving the two women to curse Zobeida's misfortune (Terceto cómico).

Popular comedian Casimiro Ortas, the first Ali-Mon in El asombro de Damasco
Popular comedian Casimiro Ortas,
the first Ben-Ibhen

Alí-Mon, the self-important Cadi of Damascus, marches in accompanied by six Guards. He extols his incomparable virtue, good looks and intelligence in a lively entrance song (Canción comico: "Soy Alí-Mon, soy el Cadí"). He reads out a proclamation from the Grand Vizier, the Caliph's all-powerful Minister, calling for the capture alive or dead of the bloodthirsty outlaw, Ka-Fur, who is terrorising the city. Zobeida, impressed by Alí-Mon's bearing, explains what has happened between her and Ben-Ibhen and calls on the Cadi for justice.

Intrigued, Alí-Mon asks to see the face that has so inflamed the Doctor's passions. Zobeida again reveals herself, and to the same effect. The smitten Cadi makes this "wonder of Damascus" a simple proposal - he will force Ben-Ibhen to hand over the money, on condition she will agree to accept it from Alí-Mon's own hand in his bedroom that night. Stunned by the Cadi's outrageous suggestion, Zobeida withdraws cursing masculine perfidy, and appeals to Fahima, who tells her friend that the only man who can ensure justice is the noble Grand Vizier himself, who surely will not fail her.

Alí-Mon knocks at Ben-Ibhen's door and sets about berating the Doctor for his conduct towards Omar's wife, when they are distracted by the arrival of a large crowd. As they retire into the shop, the powerful and somewhat sinister Grand Vizier himself is borne in on a luxurious palanquin surrounded by guards and flunkeys.

He greets the reverential acclamations of the crowd with arrogant complaisance (Coro y solo: "¡Viva, viva Nuredhin!") Zobeida seizes her moment, and tearfully begs Nuredhin for justice ("Señor te suplico"). Nuredhin orders her to be calm, promising to redress her wrongs in the Caliph's name. However, even he cannot resist commanding her to reveal her face, the cause of all the trouble. A third time she lets fall her veil, and Nuredhin himself is smitten with a dark passion to possess her beauty - "Ah, qué asombro peregrino de donaire y gentileza" ("Oh, what wonderful, amazing charm and gentleness"). He tells her she is more beautiful than the moon itself, and in a rapturous solo pleads with her to assuage his desire (Romanza y Dúo: "Esto que pides aquí"). She refuses, angrily trying to recall him to his sense of duty as she begs desperately for pity ("Pieta, pieta, señor").

As the Grand Vizier awaits her answer, the people return with Fahima and an impromptu dance to entertain him begins (Coro, danza y solo de Fahima: "Baila, baila Musalmana"). Meanwhile one of the Dervish pilgrims suggests a plan. Zobeida should invite the Doctor, the Cadi and the Vizier to an intimate banquet that night at Fahima's house on the outskirts of the city. She takes his advice, quietly making the offer to each of the three suitors in turn, unperceived by their rivals. The act ends as the crowd carries the satisfied Grand Vizier away in triumphant anticipation of the delights of the night to come.

Act 2 - Fahima's house in the outskirts of Damascus. After an orchestral Intermedio the curtain rises to reveal a rich banquet in preparation. A group of slaves, led by Mirta and Abriza, are dressing and adorning Zobeida for the approaching night (Solos: "Por esta noche ... "). A sensual Oriental Dance for these Cantadoras de Palmiras follows, though the accompanying chorus in praise of Zobeida's beauty is very much in the Spanish mode (Coro y danza: "Sultana de los amores").

First to arrive is the Doctor, Ben-Ibhen. Zobeida welcomes him with charming mockery, and the inflamed Ben-Ibhen asks her to dance with him in a fine duet both passionate and comic by turns, ending as he demonstrates the lascivious Danza de la Meca, currently popular in Mecca (Dúo: "Musalmana apetitosa"). The dance itself is surprisingly like a Spanish Faruca! Suddenly, and just as the Doctor is about to lose control of his manners, Alí-Mon is announced. The confused Doctor pretends he has been called to attend Zobeida for a sudden, mysterious ailment. Although Alí-Mon believes the story, his bad humour at being cheated of an intimate dinner with Omar's wife is manifest.

Finally the Grand Vizier is announced, but before he can register more than surprise at the undesirable presence of his fellow guests, a slave rushes in hysterically to raise the alarm. She tells them that the house has been surrounded by the notorious Ka-Fur and his gang, with a demand for food and rest. Zobeida orders that the terrified suitors be disguised as slaves, so that the outlaws will not seize them for ransom. The three men obey, just as Ka-Fur, heavily disguised, enters with his bandits. As they tuck into the banquet they are entertained by comedy couplets about the origins of the Koran, provided by the hostess and one of her 'slaves', old Ben Ibhen (Cuplés: "Allá van los preceptos que ordeno el Corán"). Ka-Fur makes it clear that he sees through the suitors' disguises, and that he intends to kill them. They grovel for mercy. Ben-Ibhen pleads that he has no objection to joining the outlaw's gang, as he is quite as discredited by the medical profession as Ka-Fur is by the law. Alí-Mon says that he has never put justice before money. Nurhedin outdoes them both, revealing his expertise in extracting money from the people for his own uses, behind the Caliph's back.

Zobeida has been watching Ka-Fur, and recognises the Dervish who gave her such good advice that morning. When he admits as much and removes his disguise, she is amazed to see everyone else fall to their knees. It is The Caliph himself, travelling about his kingdom incognito to find out how his people think and feel about his leadership - and this time he has discovered the truth about three hypocritical men. Summarily, he strips the Doctor, Cadi and Grand Vizier of their goods and titles, delivering their wealth up to Zobeida, the beautiful and virtuous "Wonder of Damascus". The zarzuela ends with another brief Danza final from the cantadoras de Palmiras, for the generosity of the Caliph.

¹ Its successor was "The Girl with the Roses" (La del manojo de rosas) at the Bloomsbury Theatre, September 1999.

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