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Opera Southwest set to enchant with ‘Ali Baba’

Christopher Bozeka, Monica Yunus and Ashraf Sewailam star in “Ali Baba.” (Courtesy of Lance W. Ozier)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Opera Southwest will conjure some Arabian nights when “Ali Baba ” opens at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Sunday, Oct. 20.

Already known for excavating long-lost operas, (see the company’s 2014 take on “Hamlet,” “Amleto”), artistic director Anthony Barrese has turned to a score by the Romantic composer Giovanni Bottesini as the season opener.

“As much as I love the traditional repertoire, I think there’s a shallowness to it,” Barrese said in a telephone interview from his Chicago home. “Once you go outside the top 10, it’s all fair game. So if we’re going to gamble, why don’t we do something that’s interesting or new to people? With ‘Ali Baba,’ there’s just thousands of opportunities with all the stories of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ ”

Familiar with Bottesini’s work from conducting a symphonic piece, Barrese turned to Google Books and discovered his ode to the Arabian fairy tale.

“I read it and I started laughing and said, ‘This is charming,’ ” he said.

Bottesini was known as the “Paganini of the double bass” for his virtuosic playing. In 1871, he conducted the world premiere of “Aida” in Cairo at Verdi’s request.

“He was a composer, he was a performer, and he was a conductor,” Barrese said. “So he was a triple threat. The reviews of his playing are astonished that he could make this clunky instrument sound delicate.”

“Ali Baba ” premiered in 1871 in London, receiving considerable acclaim and numerous performances. Later, the score disappeared.

The opera has not been heard in more than a century.

“It’s just a charming little piece,” Barrese said.

The libretto deviates from the original fairy tale.

A rich merchant pressures his daughter to marry well, ignoring her love for a poor boy. The boy accidentally comes across a cave stashed with gold by uttering the worlds “open sesame.” What follows is the grafting of some typically Italian operatic conflicts in this “opera buffa” or comedic opera.

The music features echoes of Verdi’s late work, Barrese said.

“The comic parts are very lively,” he said. “There’s a real briskness to it. It’s very light, it’s very sparkling and it moves quick.

“Ali Baba ” stars Ashraf Sewailam (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”), Monica Yunus, Christopher Bozeka, Kevin Thompson, Darren Stokes and Lauren Semerdjian.

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