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).
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.