Babur in London is a splendidly international work, an opera with a libretto by an Indian poet, Jeet Thayil, music by a Swiss-based English composer, Edward Rushton, workshopped and first performed in Switzerland, produced by the Opera Group from London with accompaniment by the ensemble fur neue musik zurich, with a mainly British cast which includes a Sri Lankan soprano and an Indian tenor, and now touring England before the Indian leg of the tour.
Such cosmopolitan creativity makes it an ideal choice for Leeds’ Howard Assembly Room, the project being supported by Opera North. However, I am by no means sure that Babur in London had the hoped for impact on the first of two performances in Leeds. The narrative lacks tension and, sometimes, clarity: it may be that younger ears than mine found the story more involving, but there was little evidence of that in the audience near me.
The story is a nice mixture of the poetic and the down-to-earth, with the ghost of the 16th century Mughal emperor/warrior/poet Babur appearing to Saira, one of a group of young Muslim extremists planning (none too convincingly) an act of terrorism. He offers an alternative view of life where pleasure has its place and, after arguments, conflict and tragedy, we reach an enigmatic not-unhappy ending.
Much of the most attractive of Edward Rushton’s writing is for the five-strong on-stage instrumental group under Tim Murray, with some beautiful chorale-like passages for cello and double bass and some wild extravagances for flute to introduce the imperial ghost. Of the characters Babur has the most characterful music and receives the most characterful performance to match, the excellent Omar Ebrahim exploiting a wide range of vocal colour and projecting an ironic authority. Annie Gill (Saira) copes admirably with rather repetitive vocal lines early on and sings and acts with greater freedom as the opera progresses. Her three co-conspirators are co-opted for wordless a cappella accompaniments from time to time – most effective – and each has his/her moments of self-revelation, Amar Muchhala and Kishani Jayasinghe both incisive and powerful, Damian Thantrey more troubled, ambiguous, though ironically the clearest of the terrorists in terms of words.
The always admirable John Fulljames directs with minimum fuss and little staging, but I feel that he leaves too much for the audience to work out: the directions in the script can sometimes be more explicit than in performance.
After its second Leeds performance (15 June) Babur in London return to Yorkshire at Hull Truck Theatre on 5 July.