Themes of wealth and poverty run throughout Giovanni Bottesini’s comic opera Alì Babà, which has just had its first major staging in more than 140 years, courtesy of Albuquerque’s enterprising Opera Southwest.
Artistic director Anthony Barrese reconstructed the piece from the composer’s manuscript, and his interest in it is understandable. It springs from a famous story, has pleasing music (especially the ensembles), and dodges the East/West contrasts that bedevil most 19th-century operas set in the region. It’s far from a masterpiece, however, and to succeed it needs a wealth of comic invention from the stage director, rather than the paucity it got here.
Bottesini was one of the more remarkable musical figures of his day. He was an internationally famous barnstorming soloist (“The Paganini of the Double Bass”), whose credits included conducting the world premiere of Verdi’s Aida, the music director of opera companies in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain, and the composer of operas that had successful runs in Paris and London.
The latter was his Alì Babà, which was staged at the Lyceum Theatre to considerable acclaim and lots of performances in 1871. The original tale is full of greed and gore, with 41 characters murdered before it ends. Librettist Emilio Taddei kept the greed, cut the gore, and added the time-honored story of the daughter whose father insists she wed an unsuitable suitor with a handsome dowry. She, of course, has other plans, and you’ll never guess who’s going to win out in the end.
In updating the action to circa 1960 and dressing almost everyone in Western clothes, Opera Southwest sidestepped Orientalist stereotypes. First-time opera director Foad Faridzadeh didn’t have a coherent concept to deliver in exchange, however, offering up routine “traffic cop” staging and mildly amusing shtick instead of the inspired lunacy of a Robin Williams-style approach, which the material needed.
In the title role, bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam sang well but seemed curiously restrained, despite his strong stage presence and some effective but small-scale comedic moments. As Alì Babà’s daughter Delia, soprano Monica Yunus was sincere and affecting, if a bit bland vocally and dramatically.
The best performance overall came from tenor Christopher Bozeka playing Nadir, Delia’s impoverished true love. He sang with a strong sense of line and phrase, and excelled in his character’s florid music. He’s also a spirited actor with boy-next-door charm. As Aboul Hassan, Nadir’s wealthy rival, Kevin Thompson seemed lost onstage much of the time.
Bass-baritone Darren Stokes was effectively menacing as Orsocane, leader of the 40 thieves, and brought a fluid physicality to the role that provided welcome energy. The role of Morgiana, Alì Babà’s clever servant, is underdeveloped, which was a shame, as mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian has the voice and stage savvy to do more than Bottesini gave her.
The orchestra played capably under Barrese’s conducting. It fared best in the dramatic sections; more rhythmic zing and tempos pushed closer to the edge would have given some of the comedic numbers a beneficial jolt.
The biggest and most pleasant surprises were the size and musical quality of the chorus, which is kept very busy in this piece.
The mostly volunteer group sang energetically and in tune, with nice balances between the sections achieved by new chorus master Aaron Howe. They weren’t given much to do from a staging standpoint but still managed to enliven the proceedings musically.
The large and visually striking projections on the backdrop that depicted the various locations were the most effective aspect of the physical production. The scenery was a simple but attractive set of arches executed in thin piping that could glow à la neon tube. The lighting was unobtrusive but effective; the costumes rudimentary.
The English translation used for the supertitles was idiomatic and often quite funny. When Alì Babà was a success in London, it was given in English, with dialogue replacing the slow-moving orchestral recitatives, practices that could have given this production more momentum and comic flair.