It was probably at Rufat’s Jazz Club in its Landmark period that jazzman Salman Gambarov told us he’d done some work for the Marionette Theatre in Icheri Sheher and that we should check it out. Well, that was some while ago but thanks to a jazz disconnect we finally made it there last Saturday.

For some reason Mexican guitarist Paco Renteria missed out on a trip to Baku, poor guy, and we missed out on a concert. Undaunted, we returned the tickets and reinvested 19 AZN each on the three remaining seats for the night’s performance of Leyli and Majnun.

Tucked away round the corner from Khaladdin’s wondrous carpet shop in the old city the theatre is on four floors of a renovated and adapted 1880s residence, with a comfortable 49-seat auditorium on the third floor.

First a confession and a caution. We were ten minutes late for the scheduled 7:30 curtain up. Normally that’s not a problem here; time tends to be elastic. But it was embarrassing to walk in with everyone waiting for us. Be warned - the Marionette Theatre starts on time, be there or be shamed!

The 45-minute performance is intriguing and peculiarly apt for this adaptation of Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s opera - based on Fuzuli’s poetic version of the legend. Stage props are simple in concept but beautifully effective in design and swiftly managed. The main characters are equally artistic and touching. They are accompanied on stage and their strings operated by puppeteers in black who seemed a human bridge to the audience. The soundtrack, adapted by our jazzman informer, has top quality singers (eg. Mansum Ibrahimov as Majnun) delivering Fuzuli’s philosophy as powerfully soulful as you could wish. The appearance of its delivery by diminutive marionettes and the simplicity of their expression added to the poignancy of the tale.

Man in black operates Majnun marionette. Photo: Marionette Theatre

The theatre itself epitomises the history, dream, struggle and rise of the country. We were forgiven our disgraceful tardiness and actor-puppeteer Hikmet Aydinoghlu gave us an after-show glimpse resume from Art and Stage Director Tarlan Qorchu’s journey from 1986, through late Soviet economic torpor, the trials and chaos of early independence, the receipt of a fire-damaged building to support from First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva and last year’s opening at 20 Muslum Magomayev Str (off Kichik Qala). Hikmet muellim modestly described his own historical role as bureaucrat in support of the director, but “all the bureaucrats here are creative he said, to explain how he came to be pulling strings on stage as well.

The mission, he added, is to promote the works of Uzeyir Hajibeyli, the early 20th century composer whose theatre works included this 1908 opera, first in the Muslim world. His musical comedy Arshin Mal Alan (The Cloth Peddler) is also in the repertoire.

Body language says it all as Majnun’s parents console him. Photo: Marionette Theatre

As a coda to the jazz connections, over post-show tea Fariza Babayeva proudly explained how her successful audition 18 months or so ago had seen her break the glass fourth wall to become the first woman in the human cast. The jazz connection here being that Fariza khanim is the daughter of pioneering keyboard player Rafiq Babayev.

Azerbaijan is the place to come for all manner of stories and connections - get over to the Marionette Theatre for a whole new angle on classical music, design and philosophy.

Daytime performances for group bookings are by arrangement.