A German comedy by Hans Werner Henze Eleven Tableaux translated from the Arabic Libretto and music by Werner Henze
The Grand Vizier of Manda, Al Rahji el-Din, laments over the absence of the Upupa – a hoopoe – which has visited him every day. When one day the old man stretched out his hand to catch the bird, it flew away: it has not returned since. In his misery he sends out his three sons to bring him back the bird he longs for, with its golden plumage.
Setting off, the brothers get to the Great Gate, where their paths are to divide. However, Ajib, a real good-for-nothing, and Gharib, a scoundrel, decide not to take the paths they were told to follow. Instead they stay where they are and pass their time by the well with a nice game of cards. They are relying on their youngest brother, the brave Al Kasim, going along his planned «path of no return” to catch the golden bird.
Al Kasim comes across his demon – a creature like an angel – and asks him to help him fulfil his father’s orders. The demon warns him of the dangers involved, then spreads his wings and flies his new companion to the kingdom of Pate, where he knows that the hoopoe in question is to be found in the garden of the ancient sultan Malik.
As the demon and Al Kasim are flying through the air, Al Rahji has a nightmare in which his beloved son is in mortal danger. Arriving on Pate, in Malik’s garden, Al Kasim indeed manages to find the bird cage holding the Upupa, with the help of the demon. But just at the moment the fearless Al Kasim reaches out for the bird, the demon sneezes and wakens the sultan’s household. The two are imprisoned and taken to the sultan, Malik. At the hearing that follows they discover that Malik is a friend of Al Kasim’s father: he lets Al Kasim take the bird, but only if the young man releases Princess Badi’at from the land of Kipungani, which is under the grasp of the tyrant Dijab, and brings her back to the sultan. Al Kasim agrees.
Unlike the adventurous Al Kasim the demon would like to fly home with his friend without rescuing the girl. He is tired of travelling, but his unwavering friend will not give in, and eventually the demon agrees to fly to Kipungani.
Landing in the garden of the tyrant Dijab, Al Kasim finds Princess Badi’at – it is love at first sight. Yet just as he goes to kiss her, the girl starts: the guards have noticed them, just like on Pate, and they are arrested. However, when Dijab appears he turns out to be milder than his repute, as he is prepared to allow Badi’at to leave with Kasim and the demon if the three bring him a magic casket from the princedom of Matandoni.
Again the old Grand Vizier Al-Rahji has a nightmare in which he sees his sons in great peril and regrets his selfish desires.
The last test has also been a success. The demon tells of how he was able to steal the magic casket in Matandoni and that he was once again caught – a sneeze again giving him away. He was put in a cage, as the unnamed ruler who was to choose his punishment was not in his land. Al Kasim and Badi’at came to his aid and rescued the demon. Now the three of them, along with the bird and the magic casket, travel back to Kasim’s home, to old Al Rahji, who is longingly awaiting their return.
At the Great Gate: Ajib and Gharib are sitting playing cards to pass the time exactly as they were when they bode farewell to their youngest brother at the well, and greet Al Kasim on his return with his travelling companions.
As the demon cannot cross to the other side of the gate, he says goodbye to Al Kasim. As soon as he has left, Ajib and Gharib trick their brother into climbing down a rope in the well to find drinking water. Al Kasim walks into their trap and falls down the well. In desperation, Badi’at jumps down after him.
The lovers are now reunited, but are stuck at the bottom of the well.
The demon returns. Luckily, he had heard their voices: he helps them to freedom. In return he asks Al Kasim to give him a red apple from the Kingdom of Manda, a symbol of everlasting fertility and love.
Ajib and Gharib have long set off back to their father. They tell him that Al Kasim is dead, but that they have managed to get hold of his beloved Upupa and a magic casket. His son’s death drives their father to despair. He opens the cage they offer him and lets the Upupa fly away. Then the brothers draw attention to the magic casket: they know the magic word to open it. When they say the magic word, three gnomes leap out of the casket and attack the two dishonest brothers, who do not know the second magic word to counter the spell.
Things do not calm down until Al Kasim and Badi’at appear: they know the words and say them.
Al Rahji clasps Al Kasim to him and greets his bride. He realises that he was wrong to place his trust in the two dishonest sons and punishes them by sending them into exile.
It now seems as if nothing stands in the way of Al Kasim and Badi’at’s wedding, to take place the very next day. But the groom, never tired of travelling, asks for it to be put off: he still has one task – to get a red apple from the Tree of Life for his demon.
The old man and Badi’at watch Al Kasim disappear off into the distance. The journey never ends…