Ali Baba, act II - Philippe Talbot, Vianney Guyonnet and Choeur accentus (Photo: Pierre Grosbois, Opéra Comique Paris 2014)

Text • Albert Vanloo
and William Busnach
Ali Baba
[opéra comique in three acts]

Music • Charles Lecocq

Opéra Comique (Salle Favart) - Paris
(May 16, 2014)

Enrique Mejías García

A few hours before entering the mythical Salle Favart, where opéras-comiques as celebrated as the original versions of Dinorah, Carmen and The Tales of Hoffmann were premiered, I found myself gazing in wonder around the Puget courtyard at the Louvre, admiring the neoclassical sculptures of Girardon and Coustou... but where was Canova's Psyche revived by Cupid's Kiss? Woe, thrice woe! If you wanted to see the Antonio Canovas you had to cross to the Denon Wing of the museum, where Italian sculpture is shown. But did Canova sculptures ever arise from the marble that were "Italian"?...

Costume design for Cassim in Act II of Ali Baba, for the zarzuela premiere at Barcelona's Tivoli Theatre, 1889. Design: Lluís i Grané Labarta (Photo: MAE - Institut del Teatre - Barcelona Provincial Council)With this idea hanging around my head I arrived for the staging of a work which everyone writing in the programme called an "operetta", which the creators called "opéra-comique" and which was performed in Spain in 1889 at Teatro Tivoli in Barcelona as "zarzuela". And so it is, that works are often not what their creators say they are ... let alone what we might be led to believe by those who have written about them. And so it is also, that gives a welcome to operettas and comic operas that were indeed understood (and felt!) to be genuine zarzuelas by the Spanish writers, musicians and audiences who translated, adapted , interpreted and applauded them. Lecocq himself premiered at least thirty Spanish versions of his operettas in Spain, a fact which surely speaks for itself? The zarzuela, as a cultural phenomenon, pays no attention to passports; and Barbieri's Pan y toros is neither more nor less zarzuela than Offenbach's La bella Elena [La belle Hélène], Lecuona's El cafetal or Penella's Las musas latinas. So ultimately, even the original versions of Dinorah, Carmen and The Tales of Hoffmann are zarzuela!

Opening up zarzuela to the world enables us to understand it more broadly and deeply. For that reason we celebrate today the modern revival of this "zarzuelón" [ed. denoting a large-scale zarzuela of operatic proportions] in three acts and eight scenes by Charles Lecocq , hoping that someday it will again satisfy Castilian taste as surely as it satisfied our great-great-grandparents.

Orchestral materials, scores and and libretto for the zarzuela version of Alí Babá (Photo: SGAE Archive)

Paris's Opéra Comique has customarily ignored forgotten operettas, preferring to stage – when tackling the genre – such sure-fire hits as The Merry Widow, The Brigands [ed. a lesser-known Offenbach work, originally translated into English by W. S. Gilbert in 1871] or Hahn's Ciboulette. Fortunately it seems that times are changing, and one hundred and twenty-five years after its Parisian premiere Alí Babá has returned to the stage, to be revealed as a masterpiece of Third Republic operetta. Enchanting couplets are succeeded by diabolic waltzes; explosive finals are masterfully developed alongside buffo duets and picturesque choruses. We missed, for sure, the grand ballet which serves as an end to the second act, which this revival decided to completely cut. If you can't see ballet in the opera houses of Paris, where can you see them?

The success of this Alí Babá undeniably owed a great deal to the conductor Jean-Pierre Haeck. Under his baton the Orchestre Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie played with sonorous life and colour a score peppered with subtleties of timbre. His way of articulating, note by note, every paragraph, every phrase, ensured that each and every verse of the couplets proved different from the preceding one, with no place for repetition. In ensembles and choruses he emphasized the highly theatrical character of the music, giving the numbers a lightness that seemed to me very French, in the line of famous Offenbach performances conducted by Gardiner or Minkowski. Along with them, I must also pay tribute to the impeccable work of Choeur accentus, the Rouen company's regular chorus directed by Christophe Grapperon.

Ali Baba , Act III - Judith Fa, Tassis Christoyannis and Choeur accentus (Photo: Pierre Grosbois, Opéra Comique Paris 2014)

Faced with such a brilliant musical result it's sad to say that Arnaud Meunier's staging proved unsuccessful, in the sense that it ignored what is for me an essential component in Alí Babá. Much of what we expect from an operetta extravaganza has to do with the visual elements. Mainly set in a large, modern department store, Damien Caille-Perret's sets found their only happy half-hour in Alí's shack. Anne Autran Dumour's female costumes were far from showy, especially with regard to the protagonists. Impossible to deny, though, some convincing direction of the adaptation by Laure Bonnet – who has adapted the original text in such a way that it can be understood even by very young audiences.

Ali Baba , Act I - Christianne Belanger, François Rougier and Choeur accentus (Photo: Pierre Grosbois, Opéra Comique Paris 2014) Finally, a few lines about the singers who brought this Alí Babá to life. They were many, although at the performance one, new graduate of the Opéra Comique Académie shone with special radiance. Her name is Judith Fa, and I can certainly foresee a brilliant career for her. To a beautiful voice and undeniable style she adds an irresistible physical presence. Her Morgiana was unforgettable. Beside her, Tassis Christoyannis was the personification of Alí Babá, rotund in every way, roundly applauded at the end of each of his numbers. The soubrette Christianne Belanger (also a graduate of the Académie) proved a delicious Zobeida, projecting well vocally, and making us laugh seriously. François Rougier as Cassim and Philippe Talbot as Zizi were her male counterpoints, especially hilarious in their second-act duet.

© Enrique Mejías García 2014
English translation © Christopher Webber 2014

Cast: Tassis Christoyannis (Alí Babá); Judith Fa (Morgiana); Christianne Belanger (Zobeida); François Rougier (Cassim); Philippe Talbot (Zizí); Mark Van Arsdale (Saladino); Vianney Guyonnet (Kandgiar); Thierry Vu Huu (Cadí); Jean-Charles Di Zazzo (coreography); Arnaud Meunier (director), Damien Caille-Perret (designer); Anne Autran Dumour (costumes); Nicolas Marie (lighting); Laure Bonnet (dramaturge); Orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie; Choeur accentus (dir. Christophe Grapperon); Jean-Pierre Haeck (conductor.)

New co-production of Opéra Comique de Paris and Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie

Ali Baba (Paris, Opéra Comique 2014)

en español
Youtube - production video
Youtube - rehearsal video