The Grand Vizier of Manda sends his three sons out to find his beloved hoopoe which has disappeared. The two wicked sons Hadshib and Gharib give up as soon as the going gets tough, while Al Kasim, the heroic son, discovers the bird in the garden of the ancient Sultan Malik. But before he can reclaim the hoopoe he must complete a further series of challenges which lead him to encounter the love of a beautiful woman, a box with magical contents and the murderous betrayal of his brothers.
Badi’at el-Hosn wal Dschamal, a Jewish girl - Soprano
The Demon - Tenor
The Old Man (Al Radshi, known as the ‘Eccentric Widower’), Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of the Black Baboons - Baritone
Malik, the ancient Sultan of Pati - Mezzo
Dijab, the old tyrant of Kipungani - Basso profundo
Al Kasim (‘the Sharer’), the Grand Vizier’s youngest son (who follows the path that leads away and that knows no return) - High Heldenbariton
Adschib (‘the Wayward’), a good-for-nothing (who does not follow the prescribed path of the action that divides) - Counter Tenor
Gharib (‘the Untrustworthy’), a sly fox (who does not follow the prescribed path of the great fire) - Buffo Bass
Invisible and unheard: the nameless Dictator
Small vocal ensemble: Gardeners, Flowers, Guards, Nubian Soldiers, Henchmen
Inside the miraculous box: 3 gnomes
Tableau 1: The Old Man
An old man, Al Radshi (baritone), is the Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of the Black Baboons. Also known as the “Eccentric Widower”, he lives at the top of the tallest building on the island. He is unhappy and has been in a state of profound depression since the evening, some time ago, when he inadvertently injured his beautiful hoopoe, the upupa that was his only joy. He has sent out his three sons to find the missing creature.
Tableau 2: The Sons
1) Adshib (“the Wayward”) is a good-for-nothing (countertenor) who does not follow the prescribed path of the action that divides.
2) Gharib (“the Untrustworthy”) is a sly fox (basso leggero) who does not follow the prescribed path of the great fire.
3) Al Kasim (“the Sharer”) is the Grand Vizier’s youngest son (high Heldnenbariton). He follows the path that leads away and that knows no return. Al Kasim is the hero, and out of the love that he feels for his father he throws caution to the four winds. This is a matter of life and death.
The three brothers set out on their three difference paths, Al Kasim pressing purposefully ahead, while the other two slow down and finally come to a halt by the Great Gate. They sit down for a picnic and play cards. They decide to follow neither of the two dangerous paths but, rather, to wait here.
Tableau 3: The Demon
On a barren mountain Al Kasim meets his Demon (tenor). Trust and friendship spring up between them. The Demon warns Al Kasim of the dangers in store and advises him to turn back. But Al Kasim will not be dissuaded and succeeds in bending the Demon to his will. The Demon spreads his wings and carries Al Kasim to the Kingdom of Peril, where the missing hoopoe is now living in the garden of the ancient Malik.
Tableau 4: On the Island of Pati
A) On his tower in Manda, old Al Radshi has a terrible dream about Al Kasim and the dangers that threaten him.
B) The Demon reaches Pati and sets Al Kasim down close to the forbidden garden.
C) Al Kasim climbs over the wall into the garden. Scent of gardenias and dame’s violets (the flowers sing). The Demon shows Al Kasim where to find the gilded cage containing the hoopoe, but at that very moment the Demon sneezes so violently that the hoopoe wakes and screams in alarm. The creatures of the garden are startled and the gardeners rush up, followed by the courtiers and finally Malik, the ancient Sultan (mezzo soprano). Al Kasim’s Demon has disappeared.
Al Kasim is questioned and succeeds in touching the Sultan’s heart with his tale of his grief-stricken father. The Sultan gives our hero the cage with the golden hoopoe.
But everything has its price. He desires a gift in return. Old Malik loves a beautiful Jewish girl by the name of Badi’at el-Hosn wal Dshamal (soprano). She has been captured and abducted, says old Malik, and is now held prisoner in a fortress in the land of Kipungani, importuned by immoderate gifts from the tyrant Dijab, who would gladly call her his own. But the girl, Malik says, loves no one but him, and Al Kasim must rescue her from the fortress and fly back with her to Pati and to the arms of her “old but lusty” bridegroom. As always Al Kasim says yes, adding that failure is inconceivable.
Tableau 5: Conflict
The Demon and Al Kasim on a country road. Early morning. They are carrying the cage with the hoopoe. An argument breaks out: the Demon does not want to go to Kipungani but prefers to return home with Al Kasim and abandon their attempt to rescue Badi’at. He has had enough, he says yet. Al Kasim finally persuades the Demon to fly with him to Kipungani.
Tableau 6: Kipungani
Silently and cautiously Al Kasim and his Demon enter the garden of the old tyrant Dijab (basso). Serenade of birds, frogs and cicadas. Al Kasim finds Badi’at asleep on a bench in the garden and falls in love with her at first sight. Love duet (with Badi’at half asleep). We hear the Demon’s warning songs from above, perhaps from a tree. Al Kasim is about to kiss Badi’at when she wriggles free and screams. Torches, lanterns, impressively tall Nubian soldiers with halberds. Dijab the tyrant enters and soon turns out to be a friendly, mild-mannered old chap. But not at once. Badi’at, Al Kasim and the Demon are arrested. Dijab forgives them, but attaches a condition to their pardon: on their way home, the three of them (with the hoopoe) must make a detour to the Princedom of Matandoni and steal a large chest, the contents of which are unknown. This they must bring back with them to Kipungani. Only then will they be free to return to Manda.
Tableau 7: The Old Man (II)
The old man on the tower at Manda has a second nightmare.
Tableau 8: A Predatory Raid
The Demon is sitting on the chest that he has stolen in Matandoni (it is coated in black lacquer and has silver edges and handles). Badi’at and Kasim bathe the wounds that he has suffered while obtaining it. We learn of his rescue by his friends, Badi’at and Al Kasim.
The little caravan sets off. (No attempt is made to take the chest to Kipungani!). The Demon holds a parasol over Badi’at and with his other arm shoulders the chest. The lady holds a parasol over Al Kasim, who is carrying the cage containing the hoopoe, which in turn may be shielded by a miniature parasol.
Tableau 9: A Reunion
A) By the Great Gate. Broad Daylight. Adshib and Gharib are sitting in the shade by the edge of a well and, as always, passing their time by playing cards.
Al Kasim and his little group of followers enter. Friendly reunion.
B) Farewell. The Demon takes his leave of Al Kasim. (He is not allowed to accompany him beyond the Great Gate.) Under the pretext of needing some drinking water, the wicked brothers lower Al Kasim into the well, then cut the rope. Badi’at leaps in after him.
C) Al Kasim and Badi’at in the well.
D) The Demon has heard their voices and comes back. He releases them from the well. They thank him warmly and ask what they can do in return. He has a single wish:
E) He would like to see (and eat) one of the red apples that grow on Al Kasim’s island of Manda and that symbolise eternal fruitfulness, wisdom, love and joy. The roundness of the fruit reminds us of integrity, wholeness and perfection.
Tableau 10: The Magic Chest, a Ballet
A) Manda. Grand reception hall in Al Radshi’s palace. The wicked brothers bring in the golden hoopoe but also report the terrible news that Al Kasim has been killed in single combat. The old man is beside himself with despair. He opens the cage and releases the hoopoe. Adshib and Gharib drag in the chest (which has become bigger and heavier with time). Thrice they utter the magic words “Habari mzuri”. With a loud bang a door opens in the chest. Three gnomes emerge and in orderly fashion, playing music that is initially soft-toned but which then becomes louder and more violent, while the two wicked brothers are beaten, trampled and humiliated by it. They have forgotten the second magic word or else they never knew it. They scream out in desperation and pain.
B) Just as the situation threatens to get out of hand and the two villains look as though they may be killed, Al Kasim and Badi’at enter the hall, hand in hand. Needless to say, they know the magic word ‘shoulim’, which they pronounce three times, and the music stops, and the musicians quickly disappear back inside the chest in an orderly manner.
Al Radshi embraces Al Kasim and welcomes the girl. The two villains are banished to some provincial backwater and condemned to work in the municipal sewers for the rest of their lives.
The old man wants the marriage to take place the very next day, but Al Kasim asks for a delay: first he has to ride back to the Great Gate and redeem his promise to bring his Demon the apple from the Tree of Life.
Tableau 11: The Twilight Hour
The Old Man and Badi’at with the golden hoopoe feather in her hand, are sitting quietly high on their tower and watching the camel rider grow smaller and smaller until at last he vanishes in the evening light.
© Hans Werner Henze
Vocal score preview