The second of Buxton Festival's own opera productions, Peter Cornelius's comedy The Barber of Baghdad, was last given a professional outing in these islands in Wexford in the mid-1970s.
Despite a witty new English translation by Hugh Macdonald, its scanty plot and pleasant, unmemorable music don't add up to much. Only the little scenario created for the overture by the director Alessandro Talevi really grabs one's attention. Here, in the 1850s, Cornelius and his colleague Liszt are portrayed as the opera is completed and its premiere assured.
The first act, set in front of an Eastern-style curtain, presents Nureddin, lovesick for Margiana, daughter of the Cadi. Michael Bracegirdle's Nureddin is skimpy, his reedy tone and strained top notes often uncomfortable to listen to. The lovers' go-between, Bostana, is given a genuinely funny portrayal by Frances McCafferty – an intuitively comic actor-singer. The Barber, an eccentric chap played with gusto by Jonathan Lemalu, makes his entrance on a bizarrely decorated bicycle. He breathes much-needed life into the production, engaging the audience as much with his personality as with his vocal virtues.
The second act takes place on a striking set by Madeleine Boyd, representing a palatial Arabic interior designed to match the music. Conducted by Stephen Barlow, it reveals defter orchestration and more sophisticated harmony and rhythm. Rebecca Ryan makes a charming Margiana and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks offers a wily character-study of her daft father, the Cadi. With clichéd misunderstandings resolved and the dead Nureddin resurrected, the opera ends with a dreadful, soupy song paying homage to the Caliph. Both Cornelius and the audience seem short-changed by this feeble, underwhelming show, though I like the prancing bear.
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