This one-off performance at the Linbury Studio Theatre (Royal Opera House) was a showing of some of the scenes of Zaid Jabri‘s new opera Cities of Salt. It featured four scenes and an orchestral intermezzo of this new score, with narration in between. The Southbank Sinfonia, the Borough Chamber Choir and seven singers – and Nadim Sawalha as the narrator – brought to life these scenes with passion, transmitting the inherent anxiety of Jabri’s take on the influence of oil in the transformation of Middle East countries from the 1930s.

Based on Abdelrahman Munif’s novel, Cities of Salt tells the story of the discovery of oil in an unknown country in the Arabic gulf, and the transformation this meant for the country and its people. This international co-production, as part of the Shubbak Festival (a window on Contemporary Arab Culture) was shown in fragmentary fashion to give the audience a taste of the finished three-act opera. With a libretto by Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christiansë and conducted by Michal Kłauza, this performance showed a number of strengths and weaknesses still to be polished in order to achieve its true potential.

Nadim Sawalha’s narration, although erratic at times (and with some struggling with the reading as well), introduced each scene in a poetic yet explicative way, with evocative passages and vivid descriptions. The chosen scenes follow the main storyline and tell the story of Wadha and Miteb, their sons and Miteb’s cousin, in the wake of the discovery of oil in their homeland. The last scene shows the Emir showing off his power in front of a crowd of cruise visitors with a falcon hunt. Although different in character, the scenes are connected by the same musical colour: it is a dark, anxious score that succeeds at creating an atmosphere for the words. The strings are skilfully used to build up tension and, together with the percussion, a whole world is created: a desert at night, a troubled mind… There is also a slight Eastern flavour to the score, particularly in flutes and clarinet, adding to this mix of mood and atmosphere.

It is, however, when voices are added that these atmospheres lose part of their charm. Except for the second scene (when the sons of Wadha and Miteb are looking for their father) the other three feel disjointed, as if with no correlation between words and music, leaving the audience stranded and with no emotional connection with the characters. And even though diction was clearly worked on, the lack of subtitles did not help create this bond. The chorus, used to create walls of sound – background cacophonies to evoke passengers from a cruise, or the sound of the booming city – also suffered from this, and nothing could be understood from many of their passages.

Damian Thantrey and Mark Milhofer as sons Fawaz and Suwayleh were particularly convincing in their roles, and gave voice to the best constructed scene of the evening. Adrian Dwyer as the powerful Emir had an enchanting quality to his voice and gestures, while Nicholas Tamagna as his subordinate Hassan Rezaie was the perfect complement to the last scene’s grandiloquent nature. Talar Dekrmanjian, the only female main character, was convincing as Wadha but did not have the opportunity to shine, being more of a support for her partner Ross Rambogin, who delivered a heartfelt performance – if not slightly weak at times – as troubled husband Miteb. Kłauza’s conducting was fierce and engaging, getting the best out of the Southbank Sinfonia and the Borough Chamber Choir, who championed a challenging score from beginning to end.

Dark and intentionally restless, Cities of Salt delivers the promise of an interesting new opera that addresses a particularly fascinating process in the history of the twentieth century: the story of a lost culture and the destruction of its land in the name of progress, bringing the good and bad of wealth and corruption.

Cities of Salt played at the Linbury Studio Theatre on 22 July. For more information, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: ROH.