Opera Southwest 2019-20 Review: Alì Babà
Christopher Bozeka & Ashraf Sewailam Deliver Outstanding Performances In Bottesini’s Rarely Performed WorkBy Francisco Salazar
On Oct. 20, 21019 Opera Southwest made history by reviving Giovanni Bottesini’s rarely performed opera “Alì Babà.”
In many ways, the performance was almost like a world premiere because it was the first time the opera was being performed as the composer intended with its recitatives included. As noted in the program, Bottesini’s opera world premiered in 1871 but with the recitatives in an English translation; it was later shown in the 1920s and 1930s in a scaled-down puppet format.
At Opera Southwest, what ultimately materialized was a solid performance of an interesting if not entirely compelling work.
For those not familiar with the composer, Bottesini is often considered the Paganini of the double bass. He wrote numerous bass concertos and fantasies as well as many operas. He was also the conductor who Verdi chose to conduct the world premiere performance of “Aida” in 1871.
That same year, Bottesini wrote the comic work “Alì Babà” based “Alì Babà and the Forty Thieves.” While the story is renowned, Bottesini viewed it as more of a comedy and from there came the conception of his work.
“Alì Babà” is a mixed work that sometimes lacks an identity as it tries to take from the buffo writing of the Bel canto masterpieces and mixes it with the heavier orchestral intricacies of Verdi’s second period works like “Simon Boccanegra.” The problem, however, is that Bottesini never really finds the right mix and the opera comes off as unbalanced with many comic moments distracting from the more serious moments in the work.
One such instance comes in Act three where the bandits are threatening Delia, Alì Babà’s daughter. On the one hand, there is the serious abuse that Delia is feeling but on the other side is the comic music that depicts the thieves. One doesn’t really know how to feel. The same thing happens with the rousing concerti in Acts two and four. Both concerti are serious in nature but are followed by Strettas that are lighter in tone and orchestration, featuring pattering from the buffo bass.
Then there is the overall melodic quality of the arias, duets, and ensembles. Bottesini writes with melodic intentions and gives the performers lyrical lines, but many of the melodies are never quite as developed, memorable or intricate as other composers of his generation. The musical writing also comes off as predictable and formulaic with concertati heading into strettas and arias ending with cadenzas and trills. The emotional quality never drives to the passionate or sweeping lines one often hears in the Italian school.
But that is not to say that there are no qualities to Bottesini’s work. The one thing that you definitely take away from the opera is his way with character. From the beginning of “Alì Babà,” Bottesini uses the music to wonderfully characterize each personage. Alì Babà is a buffo bass and Bottesini gives the part staccato lines as well as patter sections in the style of Don Pasquale. Then there are two young lovers Delia and Nadir, to whom he gives elongated legato lines that represent the youth and passion between then. Orsocane gets booming cabalettas and rich orchestrations to show his authority.
While this may not be a great Italian opera masterpiece, Opera Southwest’s revival is an important one as it recovers the work of an unknown and esteemed composer in his time. It is also important in a larger context of the art form. Many companies are focused on driving the creation of new works, but few are actually taking the time to reflect on the multitude of forgotten works that can still have an impact toward building the art form for the future. Many of these “lost” works contain elements, whether musical or dramatic, that can appeal to an audience today and help to build their passion for opera. In a sense, these operas, because of their sudden reappearance in the canon, become “new” as well. This is the importance of such an undertaking by Opera Southwest.
An Unclear Time Period
Bottesini’s opera revolves around “Alì Babà” as he attempts to marry off his daughter Delia to Aboul Hassann when Hassan threatens to take his illegal coffee.
However, when Nadir, Delia’s lover finds hidden treasures, Alì Babà changes his mind and allows Nadir to marry his daughter in exchange for the cave where Nadir found the treasure. The wedding is eventually called off with Alì Babà exiling his daughter to another palace. But Delia gets kidnapped by thieves and brought to the cave.
Alì Babà ends up in the cave in search of more treasure and finds his daughter and thieves. The thieves eventually threaten Alì Babà and free him in exchange for more gold. Alì Babà and Delia agree and take the thieves to the castle where they arrive for a banquet. In the midst of the event, Aboul Hassan returns to take his revenge on Alì Babà, burning his coffee and arresting the theives.
For this premiere, Foad Faridzadeh directed a solid production that was made up of an LED-illuminated, wireframed silhouette of Arabesque architectural forms. These LED lights modulated in both color and brightness representing the palace, the cave and the gardens. There were also projections by MediaVision that gave a beautiful visual aesthetic but also brought you into the locations. The most striking was the Act three cave which opened and closed and which gave a 3D projection of dark rocks that covered up the light. The projections of the palace interiors also showed different areas from courtyards to royal salons.
The one letdown of the gorgeous setting were the costumes by Carmella Lynn Lauer. The biggest problem was trying to find out what time production the work was set in as there were some dressed characters in traditional Arab garb while the rest were in modern-day suits and dresses. That made it confusing to understand what the concept of the production was.
Another big issue was the ballet in Act four. In a musical interlude, there was a choreography that did not coordinate with the music and forced the soloists and chorus members into dance steps they seemed uncomfortable with; this ranged from twirling to jump around on stage. The result was a bit awkward.
But for all the shortcomings, there were two performers who were on fire the whole night.
Tenor Christopher Bozeka sang the role of Nadir and is a major voice to look out for in the future. The tenor has a fine and elegant sound that he controls and uses to compelling affect. On this evening he sang with an ardent and rounded sound that easily moved through the legato orchestral line.
In his Act one aria, he relished the vocal lines, extending them with gorgeous piano sounds that crescendoed to a forte and that went into the upper tessitura beautifully. As he became more desperate about losing Delia, his voice garnered a more passionate weight that climaxed in the final lines of the act on “O Gioa” once he found the money to marry Delia. Here he let out glowing high notes that cut potently through the orchestra.
Then in Act four he sang another aria accompanied by a mandolin with bright and joyous timbre that portrayed the happiness Nadir felt upon seeing Delia return to him. In this aria he held out legato lines as long as he could and his upper register gleamed with delicacy and beauty. His duet with Delia at the end of Act one was also a highlight as both voices harmonized into one.
The other big standout of the evening was Ashraf Sewailam in the title role. From the beginning of the work he was magnetic on stage and it was hard to take your eyes off of him as he relished each moment. His opening aria showed a flexible bass with a vibrant and even tone. He despatched the aria with ease as he danced and moved about the stage.
But the highlight of the evening was the Act three double aria in which he showcased comic and dramatic timing. The first part showed his ease with diction as he brought fluent patter mixed with a suave legato line. The second part was all about the vocal fireworks that brought out booming tones and showed Sewailam move about the stage taking money and running around attempting to hide from the thieves.
Sewailam also excelled in a duet with Bozeka in what was a comic and virtuosic showcase for both as they enjoyed playing off each other, mixing patter with the fluid legato lines. Sewailam’s Act one duet with Aboul Hassan’s duet also reminded me of the patter duet from “Don Pasquale.” Here Alì Babà and Hassan scheme to marry off his daughter Delia. Both Kevin Thompson and Sewailam gave their patter a heroic touch in what they believed to be a triumphant moment.
One other notable aspect in Sewailam’s performance was his physicality as he easily danced, ran and walked around the stage with ease, all while singing a phrase of music. It added to the unpredictability and excitement of his performance.
Soprano Monica Yunus delivered a solid performance as Delia, Alì Babà’s daughter. The soprano has a bright voice and she started with a warm and angelic timbre in her opening aria that coordinated with the gorgeous harp line. She also dispatched fluid trills that resonated beautifully as she sang them from behind the stage. Here she displayed the passion and longing for her lover.
However, she was inconsistent in her following aria in Act two. Her sound seemed constrained as she sang very softly. While she attempted to phrase with an elegance that conveyed the sadness of losing her lover Nadir, her sound did not quite resonate over the light orchestration and the overall quality of the aria was lacking in clarity.
In Act three, however, she brought back the warm and powerful voice as she sang with a more defiant and stronger timbre that opened up and displayed great vibrancy. It also gave audiences a preview into her powerful sound and her flexibility as she rose up to a high note and diminuendoed with ease.
Then in the fourth act, she dispatched vocal fireworks in the drinking waltz. She displayed fluid and flexible coloratura runs that brought her from the lower to the higher register. Here one got to hear the bright timbre that the lyric soprano is capable of producing. Yunus was also captivating in the larger ensembles as her voice soared above the tumult of sound.
Solid Supporting Cast
Kevin Thompson sang the role of Aboul Hassan with a booming bass that resonated nicely into the hall. His patter work was exceptional in the aforementioned duet with Sewailam, giving nice comic timing as he danced around the stage. However, his vocal timbre sometimes tended to sound dry, making his phrasing a bit repetitive.
Darren Stokes sang the role of Orsocane with an imposing and menacing figure at first before evolving into yet another buffo character in Act four. In his Act three cabaletta, he sang with a gruff and full voice that showcased the threatening ways of the thieves. But, the voice sometimes got too harsh, sacrificing the beauty of his tone, distracting more than illuminating the vocal characterization.
Laurel Smerdjian was a solid Morgiana clearly enjoying each moment she could go into her chest voice and Kameron Ghanavati gave Faor lots of energy on stage.
In the pit, Anthony Barrese led the orchestra in a swift performance always driving the music forward and giving support to the singers. He contrasted beautifully between the comic and dramatic moments bringing out the winds in the lighter sections. Barrese also managed to get the strings to darken their sounds especially in the more dramatic moments of Act three and the final concertato. However sometimes the string sections did go thin, particularly in the higher sections and the percussion was a bit bombastic, particularly in the overture and some of the larger ensembles.
The chorus led by Aaron Howe was solid, particularly in the Act two chorus as the women prepare Delia for her wedding.
Overall one has to commend Opera Southwest for taking a risk in bringing this obscurity back. While not all the elements worked, the solid performances from its singers and orchestra and the mere curiosity of seeing something different make it worth it to all opera lovers.