Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Robert (Bob) Wright and George (Chet) Forrest, Kismet (1953)

So, you don’t think this is opera? Even though it uses the beautiful tunes of Borodin?
John Drummond, musc professor in Dunedin, NZ, has said that Kismet started his love of opera.
Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rodgers and Hammerstein can pass as "light opera"; and Kismet (along with their Song of Norway, using music of Grieg) is in the Penguin Guide to Opera on Compact Discs. (Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov had been their first choice.)
It is topical: it mentions Baghdad, Nineveh, Damascus, and the Califate.
Here we have an Arabian Nights type of fantasy, in praise of polygamy, more precisely  polygyny, but not polyandry or polytheism.
God (Allah) is frequently invoked, but remains an off-stage character.
This is the MGM version (1955, wide-screen CinemaScope, dazzling Eastman Color).
The dialogue is witty, and the colour is pretty.
Howard Keel (genial baritone) as Hajj, the beggar-poet who rises from rags to riches
Ann Blyth as Marsinah (half his size, sweet soprano, who did not get to sing with Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, but did better in the Student Prince, though Edmond Purdom mouthed Mario’s voice)
Dolores Gray as Lalume, wife of the Wazir (‘Vizier’)
Vic Damone (sort of tenor) as the Calif (or Caliph, Arabic khaliifa, “successor”, to Muhammad, as leader of the Muslims).
André Previn is the conductor.
It is supposed to be the 11th century (the 5th Islamic century, I guess).
I have only recently acquired a video recording of Kismet; previously I only knew the songs without understanding the storyline. This has prompted me at last to research the etymology of the word kismet: it is from Turkish, but its Arabic original is qismat, meaning “portion” or “lot”, from the root qsm “divide’. (Classical Arabic is one of my languages, but it does not get as much practice as my Hebrew and Aramaic.)
These are the songs (as usual the movie will omit and add):
(1) Overture and Sands of time (2) Rhymes have I (3) Fate (4) Not since Nineveh (add [Bored]) (5) Baubles, Bangles, and Beads (6) Gesticulate (7) Stranger in Paradise (8) Was I Wazir? (9) Rahadlakum (10) And this is my beloved (11) The Olive Tree
   Act 1 Baghdad
   A poet, who lives on the streets and lodges with his daughter Marsinah in a camel stable, is trying to sell his wares, unsuccessfully (“Rhymes! Fine Rhymes”); so he sends his daughter Marsinah to steal some oranges for breakfast, while he sits down to beg. 
Three beggars protest that he is occupying the position of Hajj, who is on the pilgrimage to Mecca (h.âjj means pilgrimage, and h.ajji is a title accorded to anyone who has performed this duty).  The penniless poet persists in the place of Hajj, claiming to be his cousin; and he earns some money by threatening to curse those who resist giving him any.
   Mistaken for Hajj, he is whisked away into the desert to face the brigand Jawan. Fifteen years before, the real Hajj had placed a curse on Jawan, and his young son had disappeared; he wants the curse to be removed; the poet assures him that all willl be well; he is paid; and Jawan goes to Baghdad to find his son.
   In the city, the Wazir of Police enters the Bazaar, with his lovely wife-of-wives Lalume.
To repay a loan, he must persuade the young Caliph Harun to marry one or all of the princesses of Abubu; but they prefer to return to their homeland; Lalume advises them that Baghdad is the most exciting place in the world (“Not since Nineveh”).
   Marsinah is rescued from the clutches of the fruit merchant who has caught her stealing. Her father arrives with the money, gives her half of it to buy clothes and jewels (“Baubles, Bangles, and Beads”). Hajj buys some very obedient slave-girls, and while he is luxuriating with them he is arrested by the police for his connection with Javan.
   Marsinah has now bought a house, and there she meets the Prince, who she takes to be the gardener. He had been struck by her beauty and had followed her .They fall in love (“Stranger in Paradise”).  They promise to meet there in the evening.
   Hajj is on trial before the Wazir: as a convicted thief he is sentenced to receive twenty lashes and his right hand is to be cut off; but a poet needs his hands for gesturing (“Gesticulate”). He curses the unyielding Wazir. Jawan is brought in, still looking for his son; he recognizes the medallion around the Wazir’s neck, and he praises the great magician Hajj for this reunion; but the Wazir declares that it would not be right for the chief judge of Mesopotamia (`Iraq) to be associated with the chief criminal; he sends Jawan to be executed. Then he realizes that Hajj has cursed him, and he is about to execute him when the Caliph arrives, with the news that he has found a bride, a commoner, and intends to marry her that night.
    The Wazir is in distress; the Caliph must wed the Abubu princess(es) or he will be financially ruined; thinking the situation is the result of Hajj’s curse, he offers him a reprieve and the title of Emir.. Lalume is fascinated by the cunning poet and will assist him, knowingly and lovingly.
   Act 2
The Caliph, in a wedding procession,  approaches the house of his beloved (“Night of my Nights”}. But Hajj is telling Marsinah that they must flee to Damascus, but she refuses, and they go their separate ways. She is not there when the Caloiph arrives.
   The Wazir learns that the Caliph’s intended has disappeared; he thinks his wizard Emir has done this (actually, he has). However, Marsinah finds Hajj in the harem of the Wazir, and they are reconciled; she asks him to find her lover. At the same time the Caliph instructs  the Wazir to find her. (“And this is my Beloved”)
   Omar, the poet-laureate and adviser of the Caliph, warns Hajj not to go too far (“The Olive Tree”).
   The Wazir shows the Caliph his harem (to convince him that polygamy is the way) and Marsinah is there! The Wazir claims she is one his wives, and when the distraught Prince leaves, he does marry her, against her will.
   The Caliph has to choose one of the candidates to be his wife-of-wives, and they dance for him. On learning that the Wazir has married Marsinah, Hajj kills him, by drowning him in his own pool. Marsinah is delivered to the Prince, and Hajj goes into a pleasant exile with Lalume, in a distant oasis.

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