All the recent buzz about Maria Callas should have brought to mind Luigi Cherubini whose most famous opera provided the diva with one of her fieriest heroines. However the composer probably wouldn’t have recognized the version she sang and might have also wondered why this week’s “Trove Thursday” offering is sung in Italian. Ali Baba ou Les Quarantes Voleurs continues straight-tone September with Teresa Stich-Randall (not pictured) as its heroine while Alfredo Kraus scales the heights with another Nadir. 

Though born in Florence, Cherubini composed his most important works in France. An important transitional figure between classical and romantic styles, he seems mostly forgotten and unperformed today, other than fairly frequent productions of Médée. Riccardo Muti has been his sometime champion programming his sacred music and reviving Lodoïska at La Scala in the early 1990s with Mariella Devia, a production recorded but now out of print.

Montserrat Caballé who sang “Medea” in Spain also appeared several times as Dircé in Démophoon, Cherubini’s first tragédie lyrique. Her performance from Rome 1985 co-starring Veriano Luchetti, Giuseppe Taddei and Margarita Castro-Alberty was shown on Italian television.

Despite its swashbuckling title, Ali Baba to a libretto co-authored by Eugène Scribe is also termed a tragédie lyrique and was Cherubini’s final opera. Forty-five years after Démophoon, it premiered in Paris just two years before Bellini’s I Puritani would take the city by storm. Panned by Berlioz and shunned by the public, Ali Baba pretty much disappeared until this 1963 performance.

Mozart specialist Stich-Randall tiptoes into the early 19th century more successfully here than in her campy bel canto recordings from around the same time; her occasionally wordless Puritani “Vien diletto” makes an irresistible “party” record.

On the other hand, Kraus’s sterling achievements in many early ottocento operas are deservedly well-known.

Orianna Santunione who sang all the big Italian dramatic soprano roles in the 70s and early 80s (though never in the U.S.) appears in the seconda donna role of Morgiane which was created by Cornélie Falcon who lent her name to a unique soprano/mezzo vocal type. Falcon and Adolphe Nourrit (Cherubini’s first Nadir) went on to create Rachel and Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive and Valentine and Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots several years after Ali Baba.

Médée has been often done in the inauthentic 1909 reconstruction by Carlo Zangarini with recitatives composed in German by Franz Lachner in 1855 then translated into Italian. Surprisingly in an era marked by “historically informed performance,” the Wexford Festival opens next month with that “Medea” mash-up starring young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen. She made a big splash this summer at Glyndebourne as Ariadne and will soon repeat that role for her debuts at the Vienna Staatsoper and Aix-en-Provence Festival but not before she torments the Giasone of rising Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky in Ireland.

After many years, La Scala again revives Ali Baba in Italian in September 2018 featuring members of its academy program.

Cherubini: Ali Baba ou Les Quarante Voleurs (in Italian)
La Scala
15 June 1963

Delia — Teresa Stich-Randall
Morgiane — Orianna Santunione
Nadir — Alfredo Kraus
Ali Baba – Wladimiro Ganzarolli
Aboul Hassan — Paolo Montarsolo
Ours-Kan — Lorenzo Testi
Thamar — Agostino Ferrin
Calaf — Piero de Palma
Phaor — Virgilio Carbonari

Conductor — Nino Sanzogno


Three more “Trove Thursday” blasts from the past:

  • Jonas Kaufmann sings his only (ever?) Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz
  • Smetana’s Dalibor, the Czech Fidelio, is idiomatically conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Felicia Weathers and Sándor Konyá
  • Some of the era’s biggest Soviet stars—Galina Vishnevskaya, Irina Arkhipova, Zurab Andzshaparidze and Yuri Mazurokappear in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama from a guest appearance by the Bolshoi at Montreal’s Expo 67.

Ali Baba, last week’s Adriana and the previous week’s Attila (just one more A opera to go!) can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

More than 90 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts also remain available from iTunes, or via any RSS reader.