Uzeyir Hajibeyov: Leyli and Majnun (1908)

Opera in four acts and six scenes. Running Time: Variously from 1 hour 55 minutes to 2 hours and 10 minutes.


And now the Opera World meets the Muslim World!

I was planning on waiting until my annual birthday review to make a new release, but I finally got out of my slump and after two and a half months of mourning my favorite actress (and working as a full-time Social Studies teacher), I am revealing some of what I have been doing these past few months. I wrote this review last June.

This was the first opera written in the Turkic Azerbaijani language, (in fact it was the first opera produced by the Muslim World), and as such is a synthesis of Eastern and Western musical forms. The very western-sounding overture is followed by a march and then a long recitative (the first of many) utilizing a specifically Azeri modal system known as Mugham, which permits improvisation within its fixed rules (there are anywhere from seven to ten possible melodies), and a stringed instrument called the ashik. 

SETTING: Persia, 7th century. The original story has been termed (by Lord Byron no less) as the Romeo and Juliet of the East and is essentially as follows: the nomadic poet Qays (tenor) is in love with Leyla (soprano) although her parents (baritone and mezzo-soprano) are forcing her to marry the wealthy Ibn Salam (tenor). Even an Arab general named Nofel (baritone) is unable to plead for Qays, who goes mad (Majnun is Azerbaijani, and ultimately Arabic, for madman). Leyla is forced into the loveless marriage and dies of a broken heart. Qays then dies on her grave at the end of the opera.

NOTE: The role of Leyla although technically a soprano, was originally written to be performed by a male singer. In fact, much like the first Juliet, the first Leyla (and all the female roles in the opera) was created by a man, as it was illegal for women to perform on stage in Azerbaijan before the 1920s.


ACT 1: (60 minutes)

0: The overture ** starts off with some rather ordinary, mid-19th century Italianate orchestra gestures, but with a distinctly Middle Eastern hew, amplified by an almost hymn-like chorus which occurs in the middle of the piece. It is dominated by a love theme which represents the two title characters.

Scene 1: Near the home of the parents of Qays.

7: The opening scene uses an ashik accompanied recitative (which, from what the vocal score can tell us, appears to be free form and un-composed although the text is fixed) and the tenor and soprano on variant ranges of their voices (the tenor extremely high, the soprano low). Eventually the flute and counter bass come in along with the other strings. The most remarkable thing about it truly would be the high tenor part for Qays (it goes up to a high-E), as it requires long passages of high sustained notes with intricate coloratura (it is the closest concept in the West to it) ***. Eventually Leila embarks on much of the same, but at essentially the same pitch. The soprano is obviously pitched low due to her masculine originator.

18: The chorus returns and separates the lovers **. Qays gets told on by some boys (tenors) who inform his parents about his relationship with Leyla.

26: The scene ends with a brief trio ** between Qays and his parents (tenor and soprano). He refuses to forget Leyla and the act ends on some rather Western sounding chords.

Scene 2: The Home of the parents of Leyla.

29, 41, 46, 59: A brief opening chorus * leads to a confrontation between Leyla and her mother.  The scene moves to her father and two Arabs who are deciding to marry her off to Ibn Salam, leading to a male chorus *, before the father of Qays shows up to plead the suit of his son. He is refused and there is another sad chorus *. Qays learns of this and goes mad, deciding to live in the desert forever. Leyla is left to despair, but no! It turns into a duet (albeit spoken), before we come to the conclusion of the act in which the men decide that Leyla will marry Ibn Salam (who performs are rather lovely high tenor passage over the somewhat droning male chorusing) **, she learns of it, and faints.

ACT 2: The Wedding. (12 minutes)

0: The act opens with a bit of wedding festival ballet **, a bit of Mugham from Zeyd (a tenor friend of Qays) a very Western sounding chorus and a sword dance. Leyla hears the voice of Qays in the distance.

5: A duet for Leyla and Ibn Salam *.

8: Qays arrives and tries to talk to Leyla, but is taken away by the servants *, she collapses.

ACT 3: A desert location. (25 minutes)

0: A long entr’acte **, We come upon Qays who is now quite mad.

5, 10: A sorrowful female chorus comes on briefly * as Qays goes mad thinking about Leyla. He is found by Zeyd and his father. A male chorus follows **, a bit more joyful, for some reason.

14: The arrival of Nofel ** is a full-scale aria broken up by a recitative from Qays, but finishes well with a Verdian cabaletta when he tries to persuade the father of Leyla for Qays. This ends in a fight because Father is not going for any of this.

22: The Father offers his own life up to Nofel in exchange for not allowing Leyla to marry Qays  in a bizarrely tender aria **. The situation is hopeless, but the men offer Salat (I think?) at the end of the act as Qays runs off in total confusion.

ACT 4: (26 minutes)

Scene 1: The bedroom of Leila.

0: Ibn Salam offers up fruitless prayers for his dying wife *.

3: Leila makes one remark about how she does not love him before Ibn Salam takes over again in a long arioso passage **. Qays is then heard in the distance. Leila, who has gotten up, collapses and takes four solid minutes to die in the most subtle way.

Scene 2: The tomb of Leila.

17: The final scene ** (essentially an eight-minute long Mugham aria for the tenor) starts with a long entr’acte. Qays finds her grave with the help of Zeyd, and collapses dead. The last ninety-seconds of the opera are a final chorus replaying the love theme.


There are, admittedly, no amazing tunes in this opera, (except maybe the love theme), but the techniques used in it are fascinating, especially to a westerner hearing them for the first time. The tenors especially are required to perform at the highest part of their ranges (up to G above high C at times!) in the Mugham sections. It is easy to disregard the work as an operetta with Mugham, minimally accompanied, un-composed vocalizations at the whim of the singers instead of Western spoken dialogue sections (the dreaded Singspiel), but it is much more than that. Yes it is easy to discount the part of Leila because it is very, very low for a soprano (it was written for a man after all and is probably more suitable for a female pop singer with a mezzo range), and the female choruses are rather close harmonizations, but the male parts (soloist and choral) can get very complicated. The pivotal moments of the opera (the meeting of the two lovers, the death of Leila, and almost the entire finale scene) are in Mugham style, whereas the Western musical elements are reserved for the more conventional aspects of the score (introductory arias and choruses, along with orchestral interludes).  Leili and Majnun is a work of sublime subtlety; the Western music is undemanding yes, but the contrast with the Azerbaijani style can be stark and even upsetting at times for those unfamiliar with it. Yet in its own, rather quiet, way, (and as the first of its kind), it is a work of beauty. A-.

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