Author: Arif HUSEYNOV Baku
I have often seen foreigners leaving the Azerbaijan Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet and breaking into some songs from Uzeyir Hacibayov's operetta "Arsin Mal Alan". Even connoisseurs of real art, who do not speak Azerbaijani, confessed that they greatly enjoy this work, which has become a masterpiece of world culture.
Uzeyir Hacibayov wrote it in 1913 when he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He first presented the operetta to his polyphony teacher, Professor Vasiliy Pavlovich Kalafati, and then, on his advice, to the director of the conservatory - the great Russian composer Aleksandr Glazunov. After reading the piece, Glazunov called it "the first Russian operetta written by an Azerbaijani student of the conservatory".
Until the 19th century, there was no original Russian operetta as such. In Russia, performances in the vaudeville genre were staged, and their authors were chiefly playwrights while musical numbers (dances and songs) had the nature of ditties. These numbers did not serve to develop events and were only illustrative.
"Arsin Mal Alan" was first staged on 25 October 1914 in Baku at the theatre of the philanthropist Haci Zeynalabdin Tagiyev. The main roles were played by such well-known names of Azerbaijani theatre as H. Sarabski (Asgar), A. Agdamski (Gulcohra), A. Huseynzada (Soltan bay), Gulsabah Xanim (Cahan xala), M. Teregulov (Suleyman) and H. Huseynov (Vali). The director of the performance was H. Arablinski and the conductor M. Maqomayev.
Subsequently, "Arsin Mal Alan" was translated into over 75 languages - Russian, Polish, Persian, Greek, Chinese, Romanian, Latvian, etc., and staged in 187 theatres in 76 countries.
The modal structure and rhythm of the piece correspond to each of the characters. The lyrical aria of the merchant Asgar was composed on the basis of "Sustar" mugam, while some scenes and Cahan xala's couplets were based on "Sur" mugam. All the other vocal numbers were composed by Uzeyir Hacibayov in a purely European style.
The plot of the operetta is based on real-life episodes. They say that Joseph Stalin was very pleased with this work and ordered that a film be made under the same title.
The film was loved by viewers around the whole world - so much that some watched it not twice but dozens of times in a row. The leader of the Communist Party of China, Mao Ze Dong, even ordered the filming of a Chinese version of "Arsin Mal Alan" called "Love under the blanket" (in China, the word "blanket" implied a "veil").
According to Rasida Rasid, the daughter of the famous Azerbaijani singer Rasid Behbudov, the plot of the operetta "Arsin Mal Alan" comes from the love story of her grandfather - the famous singer Macid bay from the town of Susa (currently, this cradle of Azerbaijani music is occupied by Armenians - R+). Macid bay, who was the son of a wealthy merchant, dressed as a street vendor and shouting "Arsin Mal Alan" ("Cloth Peddler?!"), searched Susa for a girl he could love. Finally, he saw the daughter of a general, the commander of the "Wild Division", Abbasqulu Vakilov, with whom he fell in love. Love immediately broke out between the young people. To avoid the general's fury, they decided to flee the city together.
Although we do not know how true this story is and how it ended, one thing is certain - the plot of Uzeyir Hacibayov's work is based on a true story that took place in Susa. The types described here are vital and real. Here is what Uzeyir bay wrote in the article "Notes on 'Arsin Mal Alan'": "Seeing this work as denunciation of their actions, the bourgeoisie prevailing in society, in order to deflect the blow, began to interpret the idea of 'Arsin Mal Alan' in the opposite way. Some idealized Asgar, exposing him as an explicit supporter of reform, although it was a fundamentally erroneous interpretation. Asgar is a person who takes everything from a merchant's perspective. If he wants to marry, then only after he sees the girl, it is not because he is a supporter of innovations, but because he is a merchant. He estimates the girl he is going to marry like a 12-cent piece of calico: just like calico can be good or rotten, the girl can be blind, lame, pock-marked and unworthy. That is why the merchant wants to get the 'merchandise' only after he sees it. In addition, the girl must be from an appropriate family. Asgar's friend Suleyman is also a merchant. He differs by being more enterprising, businesslike and a master of all sorts of tricks. The conservatism of the conventional Karabakh nobleman, Soltan bay, comes to the point that he looks down on teachers, doctors and engineers. Though these people consort with the highest circles, they may be of ignoble origin. That's why Soltan bay avoids them, preferring to spend time in the shop of the perfumer Mirza Huseyn. He likes representatives of merchant capital such as the merchant Haci Mursal."
Meanwhile, contemporary artists performing the role of Soltan bay do not try to make a laughing stock of their character. On the contrary, along with the cons, they try to show a real bay with his inherent characteristics.
In the modern interpretation, viewers do not notice either that the merchant Asgar actually seeks to enter into a kind of "marriage of convenience". He is remembered more as a hero who challenges the foundations and seeks his love.
Time passes, and after several years, "Arsin Mal Alan" will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its stage life. But despite nearly a century of age, viewers' interest and sympathy for him, like for other works of the great Uzeyir, not only are not weakening, but on the contrary, are increasing.