Tafreshipour’s Remarkable Opera


TAFRESHIPOUR: The Doll Behind the Curtain / Jonathan von Schwanenflügl, tenor (Mehrdad); Signe Sneh Durholm, soprano (Bita); Elenor Wiman, mezzo-soprano (Mother); Jakob Bloch Jespersen, bass-baritone (Father); Thomas Storm, baritone (Maître); Per Bach Nissen, bass (Tombeau); Marie Dreisig, soprano (Giselle); Athelas Sinfonietta; Eirik Haukaas Ødegaard, conductor / Bis 2596 (Live: Copenhagen, December 14, 2020. Video performance available for free streaming on Vimeo)

Amir Mahta Tafreshipour (b. 1974) is an Iranian composer who first graduated from Teheran University before moving to Denmark, where he is now a citizen, and pursuing further studies at the Esbjerg Academy of Music, from which he graduated in 2001, as well as at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College. The latter two established his connection with the musical establishment in Great Britain. Among his many works, he is perhaps best known for his harp concerto Persian Echoes, premiered in 2005 on the BBC. The Doll Behind the Curtain premiered in 2015, also in Great Britain, at the Tête a Tête Opera Festival in London.

Scheduled for release in January, this CD presents his chamber opera of less than 70 minutes, The Doll Behind the Curtain. It touches on the topic of societal alienation as well as a universal subject found in many stories from different cultures of the idée fixe. Based on a short story from the 1930s by Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat, who cited as his influences Poe, Chekhov and especially Franz Kafka, it tells of Mehrdad, a shy, introverted Iranian studying at Le Havre in France. He discovers a beautiful female mannequin in a junk shop, and buys it shortly before returning to Iran. Mehrdad believes he has found a beauty that is flawless and unchanging—as the booklet for the recording put it, “a passive object of adoration with which to share his secret life.” Yet by the second act in this short opera, Mehrdad finds himself isolated from both his parents and his adoring fiancé, Bita. She is his cousin; the engagement was pre-arranged by his father who tries to nudge Mahrdad into marrying her. By this time, however, the mannequin has morphed from a passive object of adoration into “a demanding mistress.” Sneaking into Mehrdad’s room while he is gone, Bita discovers the mannequin. Mehrdad returns to his room, now afraid of the power the mannequin has over him, and decides to “kill” it. But just as he takes out a pistol and moves to shoot the mannequin, a “figure” identical to it with its green dress and blond wig appears. Mehrdad goes to shoot the mannequin and pulls the trigger, as it turns out, on an empty chamber in the pistol. The figure shrieks and runs towards Mehrdad with its arms outstretched. Frightened, Mehrdad shoots at the moving figure; both fall to the floor. The figure’s blond wig falls off, and underneath it is the image of Bita—who also suddenly goes limp. After Mehrdad manages to stand up again, he goes into the alcove where both he and the mannequin give out despairing cries. Curtain.

In some ways, this story shares a theme similar to that of Montemezzi’s L’Incantesimo, where the main character is shocked to discover a deer in the woods that has the face of his wife, Giselda. That story was written by Sem Benelli, also in the 1930s. Apparently, there were writers back then who used symbolism to define, each in his or her own way, the essence of women who were loved but apparently misunderstood in terms of their essential being. One is also reminded of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous story, later used in Offenbach’s opera, of a man’s infatuation with a mechanical doll which he not only believes to be human but falls in love with based purely on her “perfect” good looks. Only the destruction of the doll before his own eyes brings him to his senses. The introduction of the Doppelgänger by Hedayat created a fantasy figure which combines the qualities of both the artificial object of beauty (the doll) and the real-life woman.

In this opera Tafreshipour created light, transparent orchestral textures, modal harmonies and often slow-moving melodic lines. The goal of such music is to create, as much as possible, an hypnotic spell on the listener, enveloping him or her in a sound-world quite different from even that of advanced European harmonies—this despite the fact that the very opening music of this opera is loud and dissonant, with what sounds like a wordless choral interjection—yet since there is no chorus, this passage is actually sung by the septet of soloists. The music, you might say, hovers around B major—at least, B natural is the prominent tonality around which Tafreshipour assembles his tonal dissonances, at one point in the orchestral opening actually sounding a B major chord—and in fact, the music constantly suggests tonality more often than not. Mehrdad’s opening monologue does indeed have a melody line (it is not really strophic) although it is not conventionally tuneful. “What is it she wants to tell me?” he asks himself as he gazes at the mannequin in the window. “I could believe those eyes, opaque, made of alabaster, see into my soul and she knows me as I am.” And already at this early stage, the mannequin “sings” wordless tones, much like Roxana in Szymanowski’s equally exotic King Roger, and set to a similar modal melisma. Here, at the very outset of the opera, Tafreshipour is already pulling the listener into Hedayat’s shadowy fantasy world.

Within its brief duration, Tafreshipour sometimes makes quick scene changes. After addressing the doll, there is a blackout. When the lights go up again, he is in the Lycée where the Maître addresses him, telling him that he is sorry to see him go back to Iran because he has seen “your mind and conscience grow.” British librettist Dominic Power should also be given a great deal of credit for not only compressing Hedayat’s story into a libretto but also for his good sense in not making the text over-wordy, always a temptation for many English writers who somehow think of themselves as being equivalent to Shakespeare.

Power’s decision was a wise one, using the device of having figures written to or talked about appear and sing onstage. Thus as Mehrdad writes to his family back home, his mother and Bita appear onstage and sing. Interestingly, the proprietor of the shop from which Mehrdad buys the mannequin is named Tombeau, the French word for “tomb.” Also of note are his words to Mehrdad after he buys the doll: “With such a model, so compliant and so subtle [italics mine], you would create the ideal woman…Hide her from covetous eyes.” This, too, recalls Coppelius’ words to Spalanzani when he sells him the lifelike eyes to plant in the doll Olympia’s face. And for some reason not explained, Tombeau’s granddaughter Giselle also follows Mehrdad back to Iran, and in fact has a (sung) conversation with his parents and later with Bita. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s certainly interesting.

Back home, Mehrdad has applied lipstick to the doll’s mouth to make it look more realistic, but is already packing a gun in the opening scene of the second act, long before the final denouement occurs. Part of the dialogue between Bita, Giselle and the mother is indeed surreal. Out of nowhere, Bita sings, “Now it is winter, snow covers our city, and you are here,” to which Giselle sings one word—“Different”—and the mother also sings just one—“Indifferent,” to which Bita responds, “Cold as snow.” Immediately after, Mehrdad, pistol in hand, sings one line, “May God forgive me,” then sinks to his knees in front of the mannequin, puts the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger…but the chamber is empty. Yet even with the three women present, not one makes a comment or tries to stop him from what is clearly a suicide attempt. Strange indeed! Although Bita sings on two occasions that she is devoted to Mehrdad, when moments of crisis like this arrive she doesn’t lift a finger to help him. One begins to think that the reason he’s so attached to the doll is that she is no more emotionally responsive or giving than his fiancé.

I have written quite a bit about the libretto for this opera because it is clearly on an extraordinarily high level, not only in literary but also in symbolic terms. This is surely one of the most complex and fascinating of psychological dramas ever set to music, and it is to Tafreshipour’s credit that he kept it relatively spars with clear, transparent instrumental textures so as not to overload or pump up what is a very complex and often tense drama of the mind.

There are also hints, not too subtle but underplayed, of Hedayat’s criticism of the harshness of Iranian and Musim culture. Before leaving France, the Maître offers Mehrdad a glass of wine, which he turns down. He then offers him a dinner with his fellow-students, which he also turns down. After Maître leaves, Mehrdad sings, “’Enjoyment and duty co-exist in the harmonious soul.’ How facile is the conversation of pompous petit-maître.” Somewhere deep in the recesses of his subconscious, we come to think, the doll represents not only a love-ideal to Mehrdad but also a touch of freedom that he is not allowed to pursue.

Listening to Tafreshipour’s orchestral score is a treat in itself. The delicacy of the chamber orchestra is made all the more effective by his pointillistic writing with its alternation of counterpoint and the little spot solos given to various instruments (oboe and bassoon in addition to various string instruments. As soon as Mehrmad buys the mannequin, the music becomes edgy and confused, reflecting his mixed-up state of mind. A strange disquiet also underlines the music behind Bita and Mehrdad’s parents upon his return home. “Outwardly dutiful, respectful, quietm but a stranger,” the Father sings. “Cold as the snow that shrouds Tehran.” As Mehrdad, ignoring them, sings to the mannequin “I cannot leave you, and you will not free me,” Bita and his mother sing a strange chord, A above an Eb, underlining his alienation from reality. Middle Eastern melismas constantly underline the music in this scene. The music sounds almost comical in a dark way, like a drunken song sung in a bar, when Mehrdad asks then, “What do you see when you see me? A drunkard? A fool?” Little touches like this continue throughout the opera. Much of the music passes by the listener’s ear as if emerging from a dream…sometimes a pleasant dream, but just as often an edgy, uncomfortable one, particularly in the scene where Bita confronts the doll, singing, “If I could, I would destroy you, kill you, to bring him back.”

And there is a surprise. Immediately after Bita starts to take the blond wig from the mannequin’s head, there is a blackout, and in the very next scene both Giselle, Tombeau and the Maître suddenly reappear out of nowhere, repeating lines that they used in Act I as Mehrdad is sprawled on the couch in a drunken stupor…evidently an alcohol-induced hallucination.

It’s difficult for me to say, given my limited exposure to Tafreshiour’s music, whether or not the “voice” he uses in this score is his usual or normal style of writing, but every scene of The Doll Behind the Curtain works in context as well as in relation to each other scene. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a highly effective psychological, almost hallucinatory opera. My sole complaint is that the music ends abruptly, not sounding like an ending at all.

As for the singing, it is somewhat uneven. Tenor Jonathan von Schwanenflügel (Mehrdad) has a pleasant tone and somewhat good diction, but his voice is somewhat nasal and every sustained note flutters unevenly. Bass Per Bach Nissen (Maître) and mezzo-soprano Elenor Widman (Mother) have consistently fluttery voices (and Widman’s also has a whiny quality about it that grated on my ears), but both sopranos, Maria Dreisig (Giselle) and Signe Sneh Durholm (Bita) have good ones (though some of Durholm’s high notes sound a bit shrill), as does baritone Thomas Storm as Tombeau. The singers’ diction varies, but the men are generally intelligible though singing in British English which has its own sound while the sopranos lose their consonants in notes above the staff. They generally make do, and all act their parts with their voices fairly well, but a more consistently good cast would clearly have enhanced the quality of the performance. Nonetheless, highly recommended because of the quality of the music and the libretto. The video available for free streaming on Vimeo appears to be incomplete (it’s only 57 minutes long, and is missing the opening scene), and the singers are almost always off-mic which makes it difficult to understand them, but at least it give you a chance to see the production, which is simple and effective.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Tafreshipour’s Remarkable Opera

  1. Thank you for this great and detailed review, we had quite a job with this gem. Unfortunately Covid came in so we only performed it once. There is a slight mistake in the cast list, Tombeau was sung by myself and Maitre by Thomas Storm. Would you mind correcting this?

    Thanks a lot,

    Per Bach Nissen


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