Layla and Majnun is a pared-down, chamber arrangement of an opera by Uzeyir Hajibeyli, which is acknowledged to be the first composed music to have been created in Azerbaijan; premiering, in Baku, in 1908. The full opera, apparently, lasts for something just short of four hours; this hour-long arrangement was created almost a century later, in 2007, by the Silkroad ensemble – under the artistic direction of the celebrated cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. These edited highlights were prefaced by a medley of folk songs, which introduced us to the concept of mugham, a technique that defines traditional Azerbaijani music; in essence, each mugham song is an improvised modal form, using musical scales but also borrowing from each performer’s mental reference library of a collection of melodic snippets that have been handed down through the generations.  

Given the hundreds of thousands of possible permutations, every performance of every song should, in theory, be unique. Having never knowingly heard a mugham song before, they were indeed unique to me, and one marvelled at the vocal dexterity of the two young Azerbaijani singers, Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov, who were accompanied by Rauf Islamov on the kamancheh (a bowed stringed instrument held upright, like a tiny double bass), and Zaki Valiyev playing the tar, a long-necked plucked instrument, similar to a lute, which is expressively moved by the musician to add resonance via the elongated vibrations through the bulbous hollow frame. 

This ‘overture’ consisted of a medley of intensely sentimental songs, in the Bayati Shiraz melodic style. Some song titles and opening lyrics were translated onto small TV screens either side of the stage, although the one stage-right was unfortunately obscured by a large piece of equipment placed in front (not terribly clever planning). These lyrics painted a picture of continual angst, of being separated from one’s beloved and such like but it was notable that for long periods of each song, both in this introduction and the main event, the surtitles were absent. Why? Did the songs just repeat the same lyric over and over? Were we just privy to some edited highlights? 

Hajibeyli’s original opera came in five acts with the enigmatic titles (in translation) of Love and Separation; The Parents’ Disapproval; Sorrow and Despair; Layla’s Unwanted Wedding; and The Lovers’ Demise. This sequence of three-word titles effectively tells the whole tale, which has been likened (apparently by no less than Lord Byron) to Romeo and Juliet although this classic Persian narrative pre-dates Shakespeare by at least a thousand years.  

The musicians of the Silkroad Ensemble –dressed in collarless green shirts, peppered with red spots the size of volleyballs – were scattered centrally around the stage beneath a colourful wave of paint strokes in the backdrop designed (as were the costumes) by the late Howard Hodgkin. Nabiyeva and Miralamov were replaced by the celebrated mugham vocalist, Alim Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova who sat, cross-legged, alongside each other (as had the earlier singers) on a raised platform between musicians. They sang a long series of duets, improvised in the mugham genre, which were again intensely sentimental (“My only wish is to perish in the world of love” – “He knows every sliver of sorrow in my heart” were typical lyrics). 

The music was by some measure the dominant force but the five condensed acts of Layla and Majnun were also represented in dance by Mark Morris’ choreography for his Dance Group’s fourteen dancers. The space for their movement was severely restricted by the fixed position of the musicians, albeit enhanced by raised platforms which gave added depth to the scope for dance. Morris is a choreographer to whom music is everything (he has also been conducting orchestras for many years) and his motifs in Layla and Majnun are courtly, mannered, noble, romantic and expressive.

It is also an ecumenical casting arrangement since the dancers portraying the lover leads switched for each of the first four acts, beginning with the charismatic duo of Mica Bernas (Layla) and Dallas McMurray (Majnun) with all eight coming together for the final demise. To aid the audience’s comprehension, the dancer performing as Majnun wore a long white scarf over their electric-blue shirts, and those portraying Layla wore a red scarf over long orange, patterned dresses. Hodgkin’s overall visual impact was significant. Durrell R. Comedy was a striking presence as the husband chosen by Layla’s parents. 

This work has given me a soupçon of an understanding of Azerbaijani music and inspired an ambition to discover more, as well as reinforcing my admiration of the musicality in Mark Morris’s choreography, even though it was very much the “second fiddle” to these unique mugham vocals and the lyrical music inspired by Azerbaijan’s first composer.