Cher Public

Kraus purposes

Perhaps there are not that many people in the world who would look at a CD cover and think “Oh, goody, goody! A libretto by Eugène Scribe I’ve never come across before!” Scribe, a prolific creator of many forms of popular theatre in Paris, wrote the libretti for the most famous French grand operas but also produced works in many other genres. I knew I could expect a lot of variety, incident and entertainment from Ali Baba ou Les Quarante voleurs (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”) and I was not disappointed.

Scribe wrote this piece in collaboration with another popular French dramatist and librettist, who went by the name of Mélesville. Ali Baba had its premiere in 1833 at the Paris Opéra, with music by the Italian born Luigi Cherubini, his last work for the stage, which actually uses a lot of music he had written for another opera, never performed, decades earlier.

This live recording on two CD’s from La Scala in 1963 is performed in an Italian translation. It is a pity for such a little-known work that there is neither summary nor notes nor libretto included; however I found the original French libretto online.

Cherubini is probably best known today for his opera Médée but produced numerous other works and was appointed director of the Paris conservatoire of music where one of his pupils was Berlioz, who did not appreciate Cherubini’s disallowing “incorrect” modulations and harmonic effects.

Cherubini had visited Vienna and met with Beethoven, who tremendously admired the Italian-born composer. In Ali Baba you can really hear the influence of Cherubini on the lighter parts of Fidelio. Cherubini did not return Beethoven’s admiration, however, his only comment on Beethoven’s late style was that it made him want to sneeze.

The overture to Ali Baba starts in a much more startling and original way than one might expect from such a seemingly conservative composer, with very unusual effects from trombones, cymbals and triangles, in the sort of “Turkish” music style Beethoven and Mozart had used in various works. Mendelssohn, though admiring the many beauties of Ali Baba, was astonished and disgusted by the “noisy” and “brash” writing for brass and percussion.

Ali Baba is a sort of hybrid opera-ballet, with about a third of the work given over to dances.It is not exactly a comic opera, but not terribly serious either, obviously intended to entertain and delight with music and spectacle, based on a famous tale from the Arabian Nights.

Nadir, a poor wood-cutter, is in love with Delia, daughter of a wealthy merchant, Ali Baba, but he has betrothed his daughter to the rich collector of taxes, Abul-Hassan.

In the prologue of the piece, Nadir is out in the woods lamenting his unhappy love in an opening aria that has the best singing of the whole performance from the young Alfredo Kraus, alternately lyrical, heroic and despairing, with many ringing high notes that bring the house down in a big ovation. Absolutely smashing and worth getting the CD’s just for this aria.

Nadir hides and watches as a band of thieves approach the nearby cave. Their leader cries “Open sesame” and the cave opens to reveal a treasure trove of stolen loot, gold and jewels of all kinds.

The thieves take what they fancy and then dance about, the expensive trinkets’ jingling and jangling depicted in the music in a most jolly manner. They leave. Nadir repeats the “Open sesame” incantation and helps himself to riches beyond his dreams.

Act One is in Ali Baba’s house. Delia is unhappy about having to marry Abul-Hassan, for she returns Nadir’s love. She laments her situation in a lovely aria, sung by soprano Theresa Stich-Randall in a voice that is quavery and acidic at times, but always used with excellent musicianship and phrasing.

Nadir turns up with money,horses, carriages, slaves, diamonds, rubies, and offers her father whatever he wants if only he will let him marry his daughter. Ali Baba cannot turn down this offer, and when Abul-Hassan arrives he informs him that the wedding is off.

This infuriates Abul-Hassan, who threatens to tell the authorities about the forty bags of expensive imported coffee he knows Ali Baba has but has not paid tax on. Much huffing and puffing from the excellent buffo Paolo Montarsolo as Abul-Hassan in the ensemble that ends the act.

Almost the whole of Act Two is taken up by a long ballet in honour of Delia’s forthcoming marriage. The dance music is varied and very enjoyable as conducted by the excellent Nino Sanzogno. Ali Baba insists Nadir tell him how he got so rich all of a sudden and Nadir informs him about the “Open Sesame” cave.

Delia, on the way to get ready for the wedding, is abducted and no one knows what has happened to her. Nadir swears to find her and have vengeance on whoever has carried her off.

Act Three is in the robbers’ cave. A comic trio of bandits celebrate their exploits. Delia has been kidnapped by the bandits and expresses her sorrow in another lovely aria. Hearing someone coming, she hides. It is her father, who is delighted to open the cave and find all this money and riches.

He glories in this good fortune in an aria full of more tinkling and jingly orchestration and onstage effects, which as sung by the warm toned Wladimiro Ganzarolli, bears strong similarity to Rocco’s “Gold” aria in Fidelio.

The thieves come in and catch him though, and are about to kill him when Delia steps forward and informs them that he is her father, a rich merchant, and they will pay a lot of ransom. The thieves agree.

Act Four is back at Ali Baba’s house, where Nadir is in despair at the loss of Delia. The lovers are joyously re-united and Ali Baba entertains the thieves with another long ballet of dancing slave girls. Hearing approaching soldiers, the thieves empty out the forty bags of imported coffee and hide in them. It is Abul-Hassan, still angry at being jilted, and his men, who take vengeance on his rejection by setting fire to the bags of coffee, thus unknowingly killing all the thieves and bringing the work to a happy conclusion.

A live recording of a very obscure French opera in Italian translation with a lot of dancing and therefore considerable stage noise, in not very good sound, that does not come with a libretto or any notes, may not be, I quite see, everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoyed it enormously.

The wonderful Kraus is also the star of another live performance from ’60’s Italy, Bellini’s last opera I puritani, from Modena in 1962. The sound on these two CD’s is even worse than in Ali Baba, the orchestra is scrappy and some of the singing provincial, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Puritani is another opera by an Italian that had its premiere in Paris, this time at the Théâtre-Italien, in 1835, with a cast of four superstars, the soprano Giulia Grisi, the tenor Rubini, the baritone Tamburini and the bass Luigi Lablache.

A libretto by Count Carlo Pepoli is based on a play “Round Heads and Cavaliers” which was in turn loosely based on a work of Walter Scott, which is perhaps why the full name of the opera, often found on old scores and libretti, is I Puritani di Scozia but the scene is given as “Plymouth” (that’s not in Scotland).

Anyway, during the English Civil War,at this fort in Plymouth, heroine Elvira, daughter of a Puritan, has fallen in love with a Royalist, Arturo, although affianced to another Puritan, Riccardo.

Elvira is delighted when her uncle Giorgio gives her consent for her to marry the man she loves and everything is all set for the wedding when Arturo discovers that the mysterious lady prisoner in the fort is the widowed queen of the executed Charles I.

He feels it is his duty to take her to safety, and so doesn’t turn up for the wedding, and Elvira, seemingly jilted at the altar, loses her reason. Arturo is condemned to death in his absence for releasing the captured queen, but comes in secret to see Elvira.

When she learns he still loves her, her wits are restored.Arturo is discovered, and is about to be put to death, but news arrives that the new government has announced an amnesty for their Royalist enemies, and all ends happily.

The conductor Nino Verchi leads a performance which does not really do Bellini’s grandiose orchestral writing justice, with a lot of flubs in the many crucial passages in this opera for horns. The baritone Attilio d’Orazi is rough and uncertain in pitch, but does manage a crowd-pleasing high note in his exciting duet, “Suoni la tromba” with excellent bass Raffaele Arié.

Mirella Freni is not a dazzling coloratura along the lines of Callas or Sutherland in this role, but sings Bellini’s beautiful melodies with lyricism and pathos, particularly lovely and touching in the lament at the end of the first act.

Kraus is phenomenal and his performance is once again worth the price of admission, with superb vocalism and intensity of feeling all the way through. The best bit is the duet of Freni and Krauss at the end of the piece, with stratospheric high notes from both of them. The crowd goes nuts.

No libretto or notes with these CD’s either, though those are much more easily found for Puritani than Ali Baba.

  • Camille

    Oh goody, gumdrops!
    Alfredo Kraus could sing the páginas amarillas of The Canary Islands and I would listen in.

    Thanks for doing the job, grimmie, of being true to your school!

    • la vociaccia


      I am a card carrying member of the Kraus-can-do-no-wrong club. I’m so buying these

      • armerjacquino

        Agh. Kraus is on my ‘just don’t get it’ list (the trifecta is made up with Milanov and Gedda). I know it’s me that’s wrong, but I can’t find anything to love.

        Stich-Randall, on the other hand, I always adore, even when she’s… not great.

        Taste is weird.

        • damekenneth

          I also never got Kraus until I had the opportunity to hear him live on several occasions (as Romeo, Werther and Faust). Whilst the recorded voice had always sounded slender and white on recording, the in person sound was a revelation. His technique and the quality of the voice live gave me some of my most riveting evenings in the opera house, in spite of the fact that he was, at best, a stolid performer dramatically speaking. I now hear his singing differently on recording as well. There was something that happened acoustically with that voice that really was made for an in person experience.

        • rapt

          I agree about taste--as personal as taste in cheeses. I don’t know if you’ve tried Gedda in Benvenuto Cellini--I find him irresistible in that. I love Kraus also--saw him only once, in Elisir--undramatic is almost too great a compliment (and he was opposite Luciana Serra, making it feel like an evening in a wax museum)--but his voice and style were transporting.

          • Ilka Saro

            I am a definite Kraus fan, but I would say that his voice was idiosyncratic, at times nasal, at times (at the end of his career) shrill. But his diction, his style, his line, etc could often catch me off guard, as though I wasn’t expecting something so artfully done.

            He was also really interesting to watch as a performer. Very elegant, very sexy. His acting was also fascinating. A bit like a silent movie star. Communicating through carefully choreographed poses that sometimes seemed affected, but just as often were also… well… very stylish, charming.

        • Krunoslav


        • Camille

          Don’t try to “get” him, or ANYONE, for that matter. It doesn’t work iut too well.

          Tell the truth, I did not care for that slightly grainy vinaigre sound he had ror a loooooong time either, but I had a tenor boyfriend who played him constantly and after another looooong time, I began to hear the things I liked: his phrasing and legato, in particular. Of course, he was a high note freak and made a point of showing he still had them, rather forced out, but they were there.

          As late as 1989 he was still singing Edgardo in Lucia di lammermoor, which I fortunately heard in Prospect Park with the Met aummer series. He did not let me down, a class act to the end.

          His 1979 Werther, which is occasionally played on Sirius is superb and very moving.

          Like whom you want, and don’t feel guilty!

        • antikitschychick

          You can count me in the ‘just don’t get Kraus’ list/club as well armer. He sings with the same loud, unsubtle approach as mio amore but with a more pedestrian tone, but that’s just my opinion which obviously has no bearing on his success and mass appeal. I agree its totally a taste thing. Mirella Freni on the other hand, I really really like. AN’s voice bears an almost uncanny resemblance to hers. (Technically speaking I think Freni was the superior singer but its apples and oranges really).

          Thanks for review Grim :-).

          • Anti: Have a listen to Kraus as Werther. I don’t think you’ll find his approach loud or unsubtle.

    • Regina delle fate

      Yes Grim -- I was also intrigued by your mention of the bass Raffaele Ariè. I had alwats assumed he was a rather provincial Italian, but he was Bulgarian and so a rival to Boris CHristoff. I’ve just acquired a Decca issue of French opera arias sung by the Canadian Joseph Rouleau and the bonus items are some simply magnificent Russian solos sung by Ariè, including Boris’s monologue, Vaarlam’s Song and Prince Gremin’s aria. Did any of our older posters hear him live? On disc he sounds hardly inferior to Christoff or Ghiaurov in this rep.

  • Ilka Saro

    I may just buy this. I am a great fan of Kraus. I am very very curious.

    Now he was a handsome fellow, and kept his looks and his sexy deportment well into his advanced years. But truth be told, the photo of him on this album makes him look like a mannequin from Sears or Penneys.

    • Krunoslav

      To me he always looks much gayer without the ‘stache-- though that may be generational. I assume the presumption that he was actively bisexual extends beyond my circe of friends? That’s always what I have heard.

      • Gualtier M

        One of his pupils was the crossover tenor Mario Frangoulis -- what is he up to these days?

        BTW: Paolo Fanale had been a member of the crossover group “Andiamo!” with Giovanni Cavaretta and Claudio Catalano. They had a special on PBS and were interviewed before the show some years ago. The group now seems to be split up and Paolo Fanale is doing Fenton all over the world. He frankly could have used some of Maestro Kraus’ tutelage very amateurish technique.

      • armerjacquino

        I mean, look at him…

  • redbear

    The Opera-Comique is doing an Ali-Baba by Charles Lecocq in May.

  • To hear a young Kraus sing Arturo? That sounds like a treat! I can imagine what that final duet must sound like. Oh goody, I don’t have to imagine. It’s on YouTube.

    • Those high Ds in the final duet are possibly my favourite high notes in anything. They’re just so darn exhilirating.

      • Krunoslav

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Are they definitely Ds? It’s ages since I’ve looked at the score, or listened to it for that matter, but I thought they were D-flats.

        • That’s funny cause I had the same thought. But it’s a D in both the Kraus/Freni and the Sutherland/Alexander clips. Now, sometimes these recordings are a half-step sharp…

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            A quick google reveals that Callas and Di Stefano did it a semitone down, making them d-flats, which is the recording I’m most familiar with and must be what made me question it. D is, apparently, more authentic.

            • Thanks. Same goes for me, since the Callas/Di Stefano was my first Puritani.

    • Regina delle fate

      That’s a picture of Kraus, Freni and Ghiaurov in the old Royal Opera Faust from the 1970s to illustrate the Puritani duet.

      • LOL

        • Regina delle fate

          Hehe! It reminds of one of those Opera D’Oro releases that used a portrait of a much later Mary Stuart -- Mary II of England and Scotland -- for a recording of Maria Stuarda. She was the executed Queen of Scots’ great-great-granddaughter.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Thanks grimoaldo. I love Kraus. Here is something Camille might not have heard in a couple of decades.

  • La Valkyrietta


  • Avantialouie

    Rather than purchase this album, may I wholeheartedly recommend instead the Muti recording of “Puritani.” This offers a later Kraus, in splendid voice, plus Caballe and Manuguerra at the absolute top of their respective games. And Muti’s leadership is rock solid. This is one of my favorite recordings of this opera.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I love Caballe and I love Puritani, but I can’t get along with that recording you mention -- I find Caballe’s voice too glaring, sort of too big for the piece, and the coloratura slightly effortful and charmless.

    • Porgy Amor

      Avantialouie, for me, that is a great, indispensable recording even before the major singers show up. Muti’s conducting of the very opening of the opera is phenomenal — the horn calls, the snare, the massed soldiers, the prayer (all right, one of the major singers is within that last). It all adds up to such a vividly conjured “morning” atmosphere that I almost expect to find dew forming on the speakers. His work throughout is very high-level, challenging a view that Bellini’s music is just strumming along in accompaniment of singers. Parts that pass for nothing when some hack conducts Puritani are revelations, because of the preparation and care put into them.

      But I like the vocal contributions more than Cocky does, too.

  • Great review! I’m not really the biggest Kraus fan either — his timbre doesn’t appeal to me, but I do have a great many recordings of his which I enjoy. One is this absolutely divine Sonnambula with Renata Scotto. You have a feeling he could have sung in Rubini’s original keys.

    • grimoaldo

      Thanks for comments Ivy and everybody!
      If anyone wants to see what I mean about the overture to Ali Baba, here is an astonishing performance of it by Toscanini-

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    I’m another who can’t really understand the appeal of Kraus, and seeing him live just reinforced that feeling for me (although it was in about 1998). He has always struck me as a bit of a bawler -- the placement was as effortless and penetrating as an actual baby crying, which means he sounds to me like there is considerable loss of quality unless he is in the upper middle or top, where he can really keep it in the mask. Still, of all the many celebrity recitals I have been to, the audience for him was possibly the most crazily enthusiastic.

    • la vociaccia

      See, I don’t disagree with any of your descriptions, I just think he pulls it off because I (personally) think the timbre is extremely beautiful. There’s something so “live” about his sound, and c

      • la vociaccia

        I also think it was considerably less bawly in his early years.

        I don’t know. I guess it really is a taste thing. Kraus has a lot of qualities that I dislike in other tenors, but somehow I really respond to his recordings. Taste is weird. I might be the only person here who isn’t taken with Brownlee, even though I normally love soft-grained tenors. It just doesn’t click

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          No, you’re not the only person who isn’t taken with Brownlee, I’m not either. On the other hand, I adore Florez who people keep assuring me is bleaty and boring -- for me it’s one of the most beautiful voices in the world today, and I find his singing incredibly direct, moving and stylish.

  • La Valkyrietta

    I found the entire movie that introduced me to Kraus long ago, ‘Gayarre’. It is from 1959 and there are many opera selections, including from ‘I ‘Puritani’. He is not Ingrid Bergman in ‘Anastasia’, and the movie is not ‘All About Eve’, but some who have not seen it might enjoy it. I seldom later found a finer voice in real opera houses.

    • antikitschychick

      ok after watching a bit of this movie earlier today I sort of get it now…in his younger days he sounded much less nasal than in some of the later clips/recordings I have heard…the voice is clear and vibrant here. He had a great instrument and was a very fine singer but he doesn’t make me feel anything when I listen to him…the singing is just too straightforward for me. Again, I know its just my own personal taste which can be peculiar. Thanks for posting this La Valkyrietta :-).

    • Camille


      He was an interesting and important singer, Julian Gayarre and once I read something about him which now I don’t recall at the moment other than a very great and damous Italian ballerina, who choreographed Tannhäuser for Bayreuth. Damn, I can’t remember her name and I read a book about her, too. Sorry

      • Camille


        A famous Italian ballerina who chireographed as well was his lover.
        Forget it.

        • Regina delle fate

          I certainly won’t shoot you, Camille! You are one of the main reasons I visit this site.

  • For those who don’t find Kraus’s tone appealing, the earlier recordings might be something. His tone was less nasal and “bawley”. His Alfredo opposite Callas in the Lisbon Traviata for example.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I first got to know him through the RCA Rigoletto with Moffo, so I don’t think there is any hope for me.

    • Camille

      Here is as good an example as any of what Alfredo Kraus really was in the beginning and what it is to treasure in his singing.

      His role début as Arturo in 1961 in I Puritani in Lisboa.

      I hope this helps as I do understand the problem people have with his later singing.

      • Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. What wonderful breath control and legato.

  • Camille


    Try reading this and listening to the link at the bottom!—

    And this:

    My initial exposure to Kraus was via Spanish songs, that is latinoamericano, and not via opera. Maybe this will help, I don’t know, but give it a try.