Ali Baba, Opéra Comique, Paris – review

Inventive programming, lousy choice of producer. Charles Lecocq (1832-1918) wrote more than 50 works for the stage. He liked to use the term opéra-comique although, like Offenbach’s opérettes, his music was looked down on by the institution of the same name. For most of his career, Lecocq was confined to lesser, more commercial theatres.

Ali Baba (1887), a camp extravaganza on the famous tale, is a wonderful example of his breezy, irrepressibly tuneful music. It’s just the antidote for France’s current depression and self-doubt. Or it would be in the hands of the right stage director. Enter Arnaud Meunier, leading a small army of a production team, including the now inevitable dramaturge. Meunier, a man of the theatre, detects political undercurrents in a harmless entertainment.

Ali has been transformed into an impoverished cleaner with mop and pail in a department store. Consumption it seems is the real slavery. Ali’s live-in slave, Morgiane, dresses like a home help but, unlike her master, is never seen with a duster. The shoppers could be European visitors and the 40 thieves are machine gun-toting gangsters. No, there is not much oriental flavour in Lecocq’s music but this gratuitous updating makes nonsense of much of the text despite some modern additions.

A confident producer would play it safe and traditional while a subversive such as Christoph Marthaler would give it a complete overhaul. Meunier’s take is an unsatisfactory half-way-house affair.

This political veneer is a minor irritation compared with Damien Caille-Perret’s unwieldy sets, essentially four, non-functioning escalators which have to be rearranged for each of the eight scenes. This means bringing the curtain down for long minutes, almost enough time to pop out for a quick drink at the bar and certainly sufficient to ruin dramatic momentum.

As if to make up for lost time, Jean-Pierre Haeck takes the score at breakneck speed and unleashes terrifying decibels in forte passages – yet another conductor who has failed to adapt to the theatre’s intimate acoustics. A pity because he clearly understands this music and the Opéra de Rouen orchestra is generally on fine form.

Tassis Christoyannis is an appealing Ali but Sophie Marin-Degor’s Morgiane sounds tired and wobbly. Christianne Bélanger’s sex-starved Zobéide almost steals the show while François Rougier’s whining Cassim and Philippe Talbot’s exuberant Zizi are simply tailor-made for this repertoire.

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