Opera Review: Arabs on the Operatic Stage — Meyerbeer’s 1814 Comic Opera about the Mysterious ‘East’

By Ralph P. Locke

Long before the often-prejudicial portrayals of Middle Easterners in Hollywood films, opera composers crafted insightful works from 1001 Nights.

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Alimelek, or Host and Guest (also known as The Two Caliphs), 1814 version.

Britta Stallmeister (Irene), Jan Kobow (Alimelek), Giuseppe Pennini (Ibrahim), Timothy Oliver (Giafar), Lars Woldt (Caliph Harun-al-Raschid).
Chamber Choir of Europe, Württemberg Philharmonic Reutlingen, cond. Ola Rudner.

Sterling 1125-26 [2 CDs] 102 minutes.

Click here to purchase or to try any track. Recording also available on YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming services.

We are (or should all be!) aware by now of the ways in which European and American culture have promoted simplistic and stereotyped images of various distant lands and peoples. Middle Easterners (e.g., Turks and Arabs), among other groups, have long been portrayed in an emphatically negative manner: women are seen as sexually inviting but subservient, men as devious and cruel. The pattern has continued in recent decades, in Disney’s animated and live versions of Aladdin and, right now on public TV, in the latest adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. (The very first song in Aladdin tries to sweeten the ethnic slur with a veneer of comedy, describing Arabia as “barbaric, but, hey, it’s home!”)

It may be enlightening, therefore, to look at how earlier generations went about handling the challenge/opportunity/temptation/(whatever) of “representing” (as one says in academia nowadays) a distant people in a relatively elaborate artwork.

A prime example, now available in a world-premiere recording, is the opera Alimelek by the young Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Meyerbeer, born to a Jewish family in Germany, got his start writing operas in German, then moved to Italy, where he composed very successful works in Italian. He would attain world renown after moving to Paris and switching to French, in Robert le diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Africaine. These four masterful works established — along with several by Rossini, Auber, and Halévy — the norms of “French grand opera” for nearly a century.

Meyerbeer was a kind of chameleon-composer who took on the coloration of each operatic world in which he found himself. For example, his Romilda e Costanza, first performed in Padua in 1817 (I reviewed here its world-premiere recording, featuring the Congolese tenor Patrick Cabongo) could at many points be taken for a work by Rossini or the mature G. S. Mayr (Donizetti’s main teacher).

But back to his early years (in Germany) and to the question of how the Middle East has been used by Western culture. Alimelek was Meyerbeer’s very first or second opera (depending on how you count), begun in 1810 while he was still studying with Georg Joseph Vogler in Darmstadt, side by side with Carl Maria von Weber (who was five years his elder). Vogler assigned each of them to write a comic opera deriving from a tale in the 1001 Nights, an immense centuries-old collection of tales also known as the Arabian Nights.

Weber finished Abu Hassan quickly. Its overture is relatively well known today. A delightful recording of the whole opera exists, made in Germany in 1941 and starring the 26-year-old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It still provides immense pleasure if you can listen to it without thinking about what Germany as a whole was doing in 1941.

Meyerbeer interrupted setting his assigned libretto, Alimelek, to write a different opera (about the Bible’s Jephtha, who makes a truly unfortunate vow), then finished it for a production in Stuttgart (1813) and revised it further for Vienna (1814), expanding the first-act finale significantly.

The work, in its various versions and early productions, carried significantly different titles or subtitles, including “Wirth und Gast: Aus Scherz [Wird] Ernst,” i.e., “Host and Guest; or, A Joke Becomes Serious”; and “Die Beiden Kalifen”: “The Two Caliphs.” The present CD opts for Alimelek: Wirt [modern spelling] und Gast.

Meyerbeer’s Alimelek and Weber’s Abu Hassan involve some of the same characters, Meyerbeer’s work tells an earlier part of a story that Weber’s work (which is more consistently comical) then completes. Both are in the Singspiel genre and thus full of spoken dialogue between the musical numbers — like Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, Beethoven’s Fidelio, or Weber’s Der Freischütz. (See my review of a recent Washington DC production of the first version of Fidelio, sometimes called Leonore.)

The musical numbers in Alimelek are often brief and strophic, but charming in melody, interestingly harmonized, and full of fresh instrumental colors. The remarkable Diana Damrau recorded the heroine’s short, reflective Act 1 aria in a highly praised CD of Meyerbeer arias.

There are frequent moments of musical oddity that were clearly intended to remind us (along with the costumes and sets, and the characters’ names and doings) that what we are watching is taking place in the mysterious “East.” The Turkish March in Act 2 is spiffy and fresh-sounding as is the subsequent accusatory chorus for Alimelek’s friends.

The plot, in brief: Before the opera begins, the rich merchant’s son Alimelek has saved the Caliph’s niece Irene when her boat capsizes in a storm. They have fallen in love, and Alimelek has hidden her at his home because the Caliph intends to force her to marry Prince Selim, whom she detests.

In Act 1, the Caliph (the near-legendary eighth-century Harun Al-Rashid of Baghdad), pretending to be a magician and doctor, comes to Alimelek’s house and has him drink a sleeping potion. Irene appears, and she and the caliph recognize each other. The Caliph, pretending to be angry at Irene and Alimelek, orders that both be brought to the palace to be killed.

In Act 2, Alimelek awakes in the palace and is told that he is now caliph, at least for a day. He enjoys making a series of rulings that are to his own financial profit (or at least his mother’s) or that cause others to suffer. This portion of the work begins quite comically, but the fun curdles when the newborn caliph has the bottom of the feet of a group of his former friends whipped because he resents their having eaten at his table too often. In a wonderfully grim choral number, the friends, their soles bleeding, sing of their pain and beg the “caliph” (Alimelek, but they don’t recognize him) to instruct that Alimelek be killed.

The true (capital-C) Caliph sees that the joke has become too serious. For one thing, his coffers are becoming emptied too quickly! He therefore ends the game. Alimelek is given a second sleeping potion and awakes to find himself in prison.

The Caliph now tests Irene’s and Alimelek’s devotion, offering each (without the other hearing) a horrid fate: accept it, and the other will be allowed to live happily in freedom. Each agrees, self-sacrificingly, to the horrifying offer, which turns out to be a ruse. The Caliph, now pleased to have ascertained his beloved niece’s deepest wish, seals their union. The court pays homage to him in song and dance.

Giacomo Meyerbeer — a kind of chameleon-composer.

The basic scale of the work is modest, like Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio might be if its arias and ensembles were much shorter. Still, some moments work up a head of dramatic steam. The Act 1 finale contains a brief passage of intense accompanied recitative for the Caliph. And several moments in Act 2 include spoken lines either over orchestral music or interrupted by it, phrase after phrase. (The device was known at the time by the technical term “melodrama.” Beethoven used it chillingly in the dungeon scene in the aforementioned Fidelio.)

The most effective of these intrusions of speech into a musical number is the beginning of the duet in which Alimelek, in his role of caliph-for-a-day, recognizes Irene, but she, under instructions from the Caliph, forcefully denies that she is the person he remembers. The tense theatrical situation amounts to a case of “gaslighting,” a century and a half before the Academy Award-winning 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman — but in Alimelek the genders are reversed, creating a powerful characterization of Irene as a person of great intelligence and emotional control (and Alimelek as a perhaps pitiable dumbo).

On this recording — apparently a world premiere — the work is given in Meyerbeer’s final (Vienna) version. It derives from three staged performances that took place in the Festhalle Bad Urach in 2010. The performers all sing neatly and cleanly, except that the bass who plays the Caliph is sometimes a bit approximate in pitch and the soprano’s tone pulses slowly on held notes.

How offensive one finds the situations and portrayals in this work will vary with the listener. For a lot of us, the edgy nastiness is made acceptable by the fact that it is inherent in the Nights tale, so we are getting — to some extent — an insider’s view of life in Baghdad (one that includes some sharp critique of people of wealth and privilege) enriched by all the advances, ca. 1814, of Western theatrical and musical art.

An even more trenchant reading, I would say, is that the work is a kind of masquerade. The character types portrayed here are ones that presumably can be found anywhere. Not least Alimelek. This wealthy young man resents how generous he has been to his friends, allowing them to sponge off of him for years and swallowing his resentment. When he is given the chance to punish them (by being named “caliph”), he does so with heedless cruelty.

Does the lovely Irene really deserve this craven, self-serving creep as a husband? It’s a question that will occur to audiences at the end of several other operas, notably Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — where the Countess forgives, or feels she has to pretend to forgive, her philandering aristocratic husband. (Opera lovers will recall that the Countess’s younger self, Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, was a person of high intelligence and self-respect.) And how about the principled Marian the Librarian in the Broadway and Hollywood musical The Music Man: doesn’t she deserve to end up with someone better than the quick-talking con man Harold Hill?

But none of this detracts from the great appeal of Meyerbeer’s Alimelek, especially now that we can hear it, in a performance that totally captures its lively spirit. I particularly loved the sweet, clear singing of tenor Jan Kobow in the title role. He has made over a hundred recordings, including many Baroque works. All the singers (including American-born Timothy Oliver, with just a touch of his native accent) deliver the spoken dialogue clearly and with an appropriate blend of naturalness and staginess.

The Württemberg orchestra sounds appropriately smallish and plays neatly (aside from a few brief moments of discoordination). The clarinet player, unnamed, is heaven to hear.

The recorded sound is a bit “dead” (little resonance, with the mics rather close to the stage, presumably to minimize audience noise) but clear enough. The polite applause, from a smallish audience, should probably have been edited out.

The booklet contains an immensely helpful essay by Volker Tosta, who also edited the score and parts. The full libretto is included; omitted spoken passages (some quite long) are shown in gray. Each track begins with a musical number. If you want to skip the spoken dialogue, you can simply click to the next track as soon as you hear talking.

In all but one respect, this is how an unfamiliar opera should be presented to the listening (and reading) world. I doff my cap to the Sterling CD company (headquartered in Sweden)!

The single glaring flaw: the translations should have been assigned to somebody who knows both German and English well. Just three examples of many: “Ihr” at the beginning of Act 2 is repeatedly translated as “her” whereas, in this case, it means “you” (plural). Harem women are here called “odadalists” (a non-existent word, though a fun one) rather than “odalisques.” And “Speak, you lost!” is no way to translate “Rede, Verlor’ne!” The meaning is “Speak, oh lost one!” or, more idiomatically: “Tell me what happened to you while you were away: you, who I feared was lost to me forever!”

Even worse, some German words (such as “eh” for “ehe” — a conjunction meaning “before”) don’t get translated at all but pop up in the translation as if they were English words. Thus we see the word “drum” (i.e., “darum,” but it sure looks like a percussion instrument) instead of the correct translation: “therefore.” Did the translator rely on a computer program, which left untranslated any words that weren’t in its database? (Eh and drum are both antiquated forms in German, so perhaps they were not recognized by the machine?) The “translator’s” name is stated in the booklet. He also is credited with the graphic design, which I must say is very well done.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.


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