Harem Girls Dance, Princess Elopes as ‘Marouf’ Revived

The Opera Comique in Paris is reviving an old blockbuster that is a henpecked husband’s dream.

Henri Rabaud’s “Marouf, the Cobbler of Cairo” has a plot taken from the “Arabian Nights” of a man who escapes his shrewish wife.

The work premiered in May 1914, just three months before the outbreak of World War I -- not the most propitious moment to stage a new work. Still, “Marouf” was quickly taken up by opera companies throughout the world.

In Dec. 1917, Pierre Monteux conducted the U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera where it was performed no less than 30 times.

Rabaud (1873-1949), a pupil of Jules Massenet, was one of the movers and shakers of Paris’s musical life in the first half of the 20th century. A frequent conductor at the Opera and its director from 1914 to 1918, he succeeded Gabriel Faure as head of the Conservatoire in 1920.

Marouf runs away from home to join a group of sailors. He is shipwrecked and arrives at the court of a sultan where he pretends to be a rich merchant. The delighted sultan, whose coffers are empty, offers him the hand of his daughter Saamcheddine.

Furious Father

When Marouf confesses the truth to his bride, she forgives him, and they flee, pursued by the furious father. With the aid of a magic ring and a genie all ends well.

Unlike his contemporary Maurice Ravel, Rabaud was no avant-gardist.

“Modernism is the enemy,” was the mantra he drummed into his students at the Conservatoire.

The score is firmly anchored in late romanticism with a generous helping of sinuous melodies a la “Scheherazade,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite which the Ballets Russes had brought to Paris in 1910.

It’s also obvious that Rabaud had carefully listened to the conversational style and fluid cantilena of “Pelleas and Melisande.” Following Debussy’s example, he entrusted the title role to a baritone, not the usual tenor.

The opera ends, like Verdi’s “Falstaff,” with a fugal chorus. The result is what the Germans call “Kapellmeistermusik,” conductor’s music -- eclectic, technically brilliant, and hardly memorable.

For several years now, the Opera Comique has been digging up forgotten works that were once staples of its repertoire.

Budget Constraints

In that laudable effort, it ran into two difficulties: Singers who master the traditional French style are almost as hard to find as true heldentenors. And its limited budget often prevented it from hiring first-rate soloists and orchestras.

In both respects, “Marouf” is a pleasant surprise.

The young cast is uniformly good. Jean-Sebastien Bou in the title role has a warm, full-bodied voice. Nicolas Courjal’s meaty Sultan is even better.

Nathalie Manfrino is a charming Princess Saamcheddine, Doris Lamprecht a suitably volcanic Fattoumah, Marouf’s first wife.

Thankfully, Jerome Deschamps, the director, has resisted the temptation to update the story to present-day Cairo where poor workmen and empty coffers are not uncommon.

He wanted to recreate, he explains in the program, the experience of a child discovering the colorful world of an oriental fairy tale. In this, he has succeeded.

The sets (Olivia Fercioni) are semi-abstract and simple, the acting rudimentary. The trump cards of the production are Vanessa Sannino’s delightful costumes.

Alain Altinoglu conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with verve and a fine feel for the French style. The inevitable ballet of harem girls is danced by a Belgian troupe intriguingly named “Peeping Tom.”

Rating: ***.

The production, which is supported by Allianz, is in repertory through June 3.

Information: http://www.opera-comique.com.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on European exhibitions and Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture.

What the Stars Mean:
*****       Fantastic
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          So-so
*           Poor
(No stars)  Avoid
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