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Peter CORNELIUS (1824–1874)
Der Barbier von Bagdad - comic opera in two acts (1858)
Dale Duesing (baritone) – The Caliph; Fritz Peter (tenor) – Baba Mustapha, Cadi; Helen Donath (soprano) – Margiana, his daughter; Marga Schiml (mezzo) – Bostana, a relative of the Cadi; Horst R. Laubenthal (tenor) – Nureddin, a Baghdad nobleman; Hans Sotin (bass) – Abul Hassan Ali Ebn Bekar, Barber; and others
WDR Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Cologne/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. Hall 1, Funkhaus Wallrafplatz, Cologne, 31 January (final rehearsal), 1 February 1974. ADD
Experience Classicsonline

In comic operas there are stock figures. One of these is the bass, often conceited and self-important, silly or evil – or both – who often ends up being ridiculed, humiliated and has to humble himself. We first meet him in Uberto in Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, then in Il barbiere di Siviglia – Paisiello’s as well as Rossini’s – as Doctor Bartolo. Mustafa in L’Italiana in Algeri is a close relative, as is Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola. The eponymous anti-hero in Don Pasquale is also a pitiable character – the slimy Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’amore less so. Later in history Sir John in Verdi’s Falstaff is possibly the most complex character in this mould, thanks to Boito’s masterly condensation of Shakespeare’s portraits and Verdi’s music. He has predecessors: Salieri wrote a Falstaff before Verdi was even born. On German ground Otto Nicolai created a rather likeable character in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. In operas by Lortzing and Flotow we encounter similar second cousins. We shouldn’t forget Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail either. A lesser known but well delineated relative within the German sphere is Abul Hassan Ali Ebn Bekar, the larger-than-life barber in Peter Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. He isn’t an evil person, quite the contrary, but he is a big braggart and manages to make a mess of things. The plot goes back to a story from ‘The Arabian Nights’ and a condensed version goes something like this:

The young and rich Nureddin is deeply in love with Margiana, the daughter of the Cadi. His childhood friend, Bostana, arranges a meeting and Nureddin sends for Abul Hassan Ali Ebn Bekar, the best barber in town, to make him presentable. The barber is more interested in talking about his knowledge of art and science and Nureddin asks his servants to throw him out. The Barber turns furious and chases the servants, knife in hand, but some tactical flatteries makes him calm down and do his job. When Nureddin tells him about his approaching meeting, the barber gets so excited that he offers to accompany Nureddin. In the second act the two lovers meet but are disturbed by the sudden return of the Cadi. Nureddin hides and when the barber hears cries from a slave being punished he believes it is Nureddin and rushes into the house. Believing Nureddin to have been murdered he sends for the Caliph, who arrives. Nureddin is found and pressurised by the Caliph. The Cadi accepts that the young couple should be married. The verbose barber makes such an impression on the Caliph that he is invited to work for him.

Not one of literature’s masterworks, maybe, but much thinner and more incomprehensible librettos have been successfully set to music. Cornelius’s opera was not a success at the premiere on 15 December 1858 at Hoftheater in Weimar. The composer describes the disaster as follows:

‘My work had drawn a full house. The performance filled the evening and was excellent, splendid, considering the difficulties the work presents. Right from the start, the applause was accompanied by persistent hissing from a hired, well-organized and expediently distributed group that was unprecedented in the annals of Weimar … At the end there was a fight lasting ten minutes.’

The reason for the debacle was decidedly not the quality of the music or the play. This was a protest against the conductor of the evening, Franz Liszt, whose radical ideas were not to everybody’s liking – and it was successful. The production was taken off the repertoire and Liszt resigned and left Weimar for good. But the one who suffered the most was Cornelius, who never saw his opera staged again during his lifetime. It was revived about twenty years later, again with no success. In 1884 in Karlsruhe, Felix Mottl – who orchestrated Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder – presented it, but in truncated and altered form. It was not until 1904 that it was staged in its original shape. After that it was regarded as one of the best German comic operas – next to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg according to some judges.

I hadn’t heard the opera before, although there exist two studio recordings. Columbia set it down in London in 1956 with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and a starry cast including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and with Oskar Czerwenka as the barber. In the early 1970s Heinrich Hollreiser recorded it with Sylvia Geszty, Adalbert Kraus, Bernd Weikl and with Karl Ridderbusch as the barber. There also seems to have been an even older, Vienna-based recording, from 1952.

What I knew from as far back as the early 1960s was the overture, which appeared now and then in recordings and on concerts. I remembered it as something quite different from the usual potpourri of melodies from the subsequent opera. This piece, with a playing time of over seven minutes, is symphonically constructed – a kind of symphonic poem in fact. It is artfully orchestrated with a lot of woodwind solos and an orchestral texture that is transparent and airy - more Mozartean than Wagnerian. What is more: the whole opera is permeated by this artfulness with impressive ensembles and powerful but still translucent choruses with some contrapuntal writing. On top of all this there is an atmospheric entr’acte opening act two, thematically built on the muezzin’s proclamation of prayer. It is the only music in the score with an oriental touch.

The proceedings are dominated by Nureddin and Abul Hassan Ali Ebn Bekar, the barber. Both singers are excellent. Horst R. Laubenthal, then at the beginning of a great international career – was born in 1939 and made his debut in 1967. He has a mellifluous lyric tenor, ideally suited to Mozart and the lyric German tenor roles. He is also a vivid actor. The fine love duet in act two is one of the high-spots in the opera. There he is especially winning, partnered by Helen Donath, who here manages to soften her voice a little – elsewhere she can be irritatingly acidulous. There is nothing sour about Hans Sotin’s impressive barber, however. This must be a dream role for a fruity bass and Sotin revels in the opportunities to make a show. His is a large, sonorous, warm and evenly produced voice of exceptional beauty. The very lowest notes – and he is required to sing quite a few of them – are somewhat sketchy but otherwise he is admirable. He produces ringing top notes that many a baritone should envy.

The rest of the cast are more or less comprimarios, but the young Dale Duesing – he was only 26 at the time – is a fine Caliph. Veteran Fritz Peter is a Cadi full of character and Marga Schiml – also still in her twenties – does what she can with Bostana’s role. The versatile Ferdinand Leitner, who had a special affinity with Mozart, obviously enjoys the score. He is well supported by the Cologne Radio forces. The male chorus has a field day in the riveting Hinaus aus Hof und Haus (CD 1 tr. 7), where they are ordered to throw the cackling barber out of the house.

The sound is what is to be expected from a 35-year-old radio recording: not very spectacular but well balanced. I wouldn’t have minded some more cue-points and a libretto should have been included. Not many listeners will be familiar with the work and the brief synopsis is no substitute.

Whether Der Barbier von Bagdad will ever be a standard work again is hard to prophesy –  this kind of story has probably lost its attraction to latter-day generations. It is nevertheless rather amusing and the music definitely deserves a better fate than oblivion.

Göran Forsling



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