Good intentions are not enough. All kudos to Jérôme Deschamps for treating Paris to a hidden gem of the French repertoire, but the project stumbles on his artistic choices.
First performed in 1914 in this same theatre, Henri Rabaud’s second opera tells the tale of Mârouf, a henpecked cobbler in Cairo who flees his wife and bluffs his way into marriage with a sultan’s daughter. It was a national and international success before falling into oblivion after the second world war.
Rabaud’s orientalism harks back to picturesque 18th-century Turquerie and takes a patronising, colonial attitude. Lucien Népoty’s libretto is littered with invocations to Allah and the Almighty, and barely a sentence goes by without an Insh’Allah. There is nothing lethal about his gentle mocking of Arab civilisation but enough to raise some politically correct hackles today.
Deschamps’ lively staging, which has no PC complexes, resists going overboard on the gags – this is a piece designed to raise a smile, not trigger guffaws – but he and his team largely miss out on the simple poetry and good taste that Robert Fortune’s production for Marseille in 2000 had in spades. Olivia Fercioni’s unappealing sets reek of a tight budget and encroach on too much of the theatre’s modest stage, fatally hemming in the dancers in the ballet. Vanessa Sannino clearly spent a lot of time on the costumes which are complicated, garish and generally rather hideous. Visually, the production would be a trial in some provincial backwater; in Paris it is unacceptable.
Nor is the casting up to much. Jean-Sébastien Bou’s Mârouf stays the course – an achievement in a demanding role – but his is a hard, unyielding baritone that grinds out the notes. Nathalie Manfrino’s princess is simply common, her soprano blowsy and unfocused. Even a reliable trouper like Doris Lamprecht (the nagging wife) opts for painful screaming in lieu of characterisation. Happily, Nicolas Courjal’s Sultan and Frédéric Goncalves as Mârouf’s friend Ali are much nearer the mark.
The saving grace comes from the pit where Alain Altinoglu, conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, cradles the score’s myriad beauties. Rabaud leans heavily on Ravel, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, Magnard and Wagner, but Altinoglu’s masterful conducting helps Mârouf triumph over these influences and sound like an original, coherent whole. The stars are for him and the orchestra.