“Open sesame!” is the famous command that opens a cave of fabulous riches in “Alì Babà and the 40 Thieves,” a tale included in many versions of The Thousand and One Nights. Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest is betting that the score for Giovanni Bottesini’s Alì Babà contains fabulous musical riches, even though it’s been missing for almost 150 years. Thanks to some sleuthing by Anthony Barrese, the company’s music director and principal conductor, New Mexicans will be the first to hear this comic opera since its premiere in 1871 at London’s Lyceum Theatre, where it was one of the biggest hits of the year.
“When I first looked at the score, I was immediately struck by how sophisticated and forward-looking the music is,” Barrese says. “It’s beautifully orchestrated and it’s very clever and funny. For instance, there’s a chorus for the 40 thieves who are all asleep. They’re singing about the different things they’re dreaming about, which is really a brilliant comic idea. There’s also an aria that sounds a lot like ‘The Toreador Song’ from Carmen, which premiered four years after Alì Babà.”
The origin story is one of the more gruesome tales included in The Thousand and One Nights, the compilation of Middle Eastern and Indian folk stories that began to be collected during the ninth century. All 40 thieves die during the course of it (37 by having boiling oil poured onto them), along with Alì Babà’s older brother, who is hacked into quarters by the thieves. In short, the focus is on greed and vengeance, without a drop of romance.
In turning the tale into a comic-opera, Emilio Taddei wisely reduced the body count to zero. He also recast the plot so that it focuses on Alì Babà’s desire to have his daughter Delia marry a wealthy man instead of poor young Nadir, with whom she is, of course, madly in love. Fortunately, Nadir stumbles upon the cave where the 40 thieves store their plunder and overhears the secret command that opens the door. Meanwhile, the customs collector Aboul Hassan coerces Alì Babà into giving him Delia’s hand in marriage. After a series of comic complications, the thieves are arrested, Aboul Hassan is sent away, and Delia weds the now-wealthy Nadir.
“Especially now that we’re in rehearsals, it feels a lot like The Barber of Seville set in another culture,” Barrese says. “Most comic operas that are set in similar locales are about an East-versus-West clash, where the non-Western culture is made fun of. Alì Babà is different, in part because there isn’t any European presence. The characters are treated with respect, and there’s none of the typical ‘snake-charmer’ music you often hear in such operas.
“I also wanted to cast it with singers of Middle Eastern heritage as much as possible, to reinforce that sense of understanding and respect. Ashraf Sewailam, the bass who plays the title role, was born in Egypt. Delia, Alì Babà’s daughter, is played by Monica Yunus, who is originally from Bangladesh. Our Nadir, Christopher Bozeka, is a tenor of Ottoman-Greek descent, and Laurel Semerdjian, the mezzo-soprano who plays the servant Morgiana, is Armenian.”
Stage director Foad Faridzadeh is a young Iranian-born writer and director of films, music videos, and television episodes. “This is his first opera, so we’ve paired him with assistant director Kristen Barrett, who has a lot of opera directing experience in addition to her background as a singer,” Barrese says. Barrett is also collaborating with Barrese on the libretto’s English translation, which will be displayed above the stage during the performances.
Bottesini was a virtuoso instrumentalist and a skilled conductor as well as a composer. During his lifetime he achieved international fame as “the Paganini of the double bass,” thanks to his exceptional facility on the unwieldy instrument. “It was as though he had a hundred nightingales caged in his double-bass!” reported one contemporary journal.
Alì Babà’s composer was renowned for entertaining the audience at operas he conducted by hauling out his double bass and playing it during intermissions. Opera Southwest honors this tradition by having principal bassist Mark Tatum play the composer’s nine-minute showpiece, Fantasy on Bellini’s La Sonnambula, during the intermission.
Giuseppe Verdi thought so much of Bottesini’s conducting that he chose him to lead the world premiere of his Aida at Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House, and it was Verdi who was Barrese’s link to Bottesini. “A few years ago, I was studying Aida, and saw references to Bottesini and his Alì Babà, which had premiered earlier the same year and was referred to as a comic masterpiece,” he says. “So I wrote Ricordi, the big Italian classical music publisher, which has an enormous archive, and they had Bottesini’s manuscript score. They sent a copy of it, which I used to reconstruct the opera’s vocal score and instrumental parts.” ◀
▼ Giovanni Bottesini’s Alì Babà
▼ Presented by Opera Southwest
▼ 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20 and 27; 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 25
▼ National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th St. SW, Albuquerque
▼ Tickets are $19-$99, with discounts available for those aged 30 and under; 505-243-0591, operasouthwest.org
Opera Southwest’s 2019-2020 season continues in February with the local premiere of Daniel Catán’s The Postman (Il Postino), which is based on the film of the same name. It’s the story of Mario Ruoppolo, a shy young postman in a remote Italian village who becomes the personal letter carrier for exiled poet Pablo Neruda. Soon Mario is writing poetry himself, first to woo a local barmaid and then to chronicle the struggles of his village comrades. The opera was very popular with audiences and critics at its Los Angeles Opera world premiere in 2010. The New York Times wrote that it “abounds in real melodies — melodies with musical shapeliness, a capacity to soar and the potential to move the listener.” Performances are scheduled for Feb. 2, 7, and 9.
The company’s standard repertory offering for the season is Verdi’s La traviata, with performances slated for March 22, 25, 27, and 29. Up-and-coming soprano Angela Mortellaro, whose credits include Juliet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet with the Minnesota Opera, the title role in Massenet’s Thaïs with the Florida Grand Opera, and Norina in the Sarasota Opera’s Don Pasquale, takes on the role of Violetta Valéry, the consumptive courtesan who renounces her beloved for the sake of his family.