Kurt Atterberg is not a name associated with exotic stage works set in the fabled East, being generally known as the Swedish composer of Late Romantic symphonies, the sixth of which won international acclaim in the 1930s and was recorded by Thomas Beecham. His Aladin billed as a "Fairy Tale Opera for Grown-Ups" does indeed contain all the familiar magical story elements from Disney and countless other retellings: a fearless, naïve young hero, a wicked vizier, a veiled princess, a cave full of treasure and, of course, a genie with a magic lamp. For those familiar with the British pantomime tradition there is sadly no Widow Twankey in drag let alone a scene in a Chinese laundry with audience participation!

Solen Mainguené (Laila) and Michael Ha (Aladin) © Volker Beinhorn
Solen Mainguené (Laila) and Michael Ha (Aladin)
© Volker Beinhorn

Atterberg had heard Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade in 1912, and had been inspired to write ‘oriental’ suites and his own incidental music to TurandotThe Arabian Nights tale gave him dramatic and musical scope for a fantastic narrative with magical stage transformations and colourful orchestration.

As head of the Swedish Musicians Union, Atterberg maintained close cultural links with Germany, where he was held in high respect as a representative nationalist Nordic artist throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His previous operas had been successful produced in Germany and he began work in 1936 on Aladin to a German libretto by Willeminsky and Hardt-Warden, though for the world première in Stockholm in early 1941 he and his wife made a Swedish translation. The opera received its successful German production in October 1941 in Chemnitz, which had seen productions of two of his operas. Until this production it had received no further performances.

Selçuk Hakan Tiraşoğlu (Blind Beggar) © Volker Beinhorn
Selçuk Hakan Tiraşoğlu (Blind Beggar)
© Volker Beinhorn
One of the difficulties of mounting such a rare work is casting, especially as on getting to the theatre I saw that both the Vizier and the blind beggar (the Genie of the Lamp) were indisposed but would be acting their parts while singers performed at the side of stage. In the event Steven Scheschareg (the Vizier) and Magnus Piontek (the Blind Beggar) gave confident well characterised performances, reading from the score with, I suspect, little preparation.

Aladin begins with a potpourri overture and the character of the work was immediately apparent with sinuous arabesque solos for the wind and a lushly swooning oriental theme for the strings. So many influences sprang to mind: the rich chromatic harmonies of Korngold, the perfumed scent of Schreker, and the lapidary use of celesta and piano for the treasure in the Genie’s vault bringing vividly to mind Bluebeard’s treasure in Bartók’s opera. To balance this palette there are rhythmically punchy brass fanfares and dance rhythms, which appear later in the drunken revelry of the Vizier’s followers.

The curtain opened on a square in Samarkand, with off-stage voices singing  "Who will buy my hashish?" the stage dominated by a black Kabbalah like cube, which revolved and opened to reveal the cave piled with safety deposit boxes, the Hamam and the gilded trumpery of the Sultan’s palace. The lamp itself was depicted as a glowing cube.

Oleksandr Pushniak (Vizier) © Volker Beinhorn
Oleksandr Pushniak (Vizier)
© Volker Beinhorn

Onto the scene appeared Aladin (Michael Ha), sharing his last coins with the beggar. Ha caught the freshness and naïvety well with his attractive lyric tenor, though later in the opera he had to strain against the large orchestra. He defends a beggar from the bullying Vizier and receives his blessing. Princess Laila arrives and all are forbidden to look on her beauty. Sung by French soprano Solen Maingené, with a damascene wide-ranging voice, Laila is clearly related to the Queen of Shemakha in The Golden Cockerel. Aladin contrives to gaze on her illicitly, and both are immediately attracted, but Aladin is arrested by the jealous Vizier. The beggar tells the Vizier of the magic lamp of love which can be won only by a pure hero and thus obtains Aladin's release, whom the Vizier realises is the means by which he himself will win the love of Laila, power and riches. Despite many tribulations, true love wins in the end. 

All this action is treated in a fantastical manner by designer and director Andrej Woron, introducing eccentric elements like a bevy of dancing nuns, Star War troopers as the Sultan's guards, and a besuited Western dignitary prominent for his bright orange hair. The Vizier and his uniformed guards drew obvious parallels with modern Central Asian dictatorships though treated grotesquely rather than dangerously. The most striking scene is the highly charged love duet at the start of Act 2 when the Genie grants Aladin a vision of Laila, making graphic and modish use of a hand-held camera.

Patrick Ruyters (Derim), Justin Moore (Balab), Chor und Statisterie © Volker Beinhorn
Patrick Ruyters (Derim), Justin Moore (Balab), Chor und Statisterie
© Volker Beinhorn

Conductor Jonas Alber drew colourful playing from the orchestra, in a well paced performance though the small lively chorus could not really make the necessary jubilant effect in the concluding hymn to Allah.

The performance was greeted with great enthusiasm and the question arises why such an inventive rich score has been ignored for the last 75 years. It is impossible to ignore the dark times when it was premiered and controversy surrounds its composition. By late 1941 the worsening war situation precluded any further productions in Germany. The joint librettist, Willeminsky, was Jewish and his name was omitted from the published score, to avoid drawing attention and not to jeopardise his ‘poor royalties’. Willeminsky was arrested in December 1941, and he is presumed to have died either by suicide or in an extermination camp in 1942. After 1945 Atterberg was heavily criticised for his German involvement and his reputation was severely damaged, as his style of late Romantic nationalism fell completely out of fashion in his homeland. Embittered, he lived until 1974, describing himself in his own memoirs as a "living corpse". For this Swedish Aladin there was no escape by a magic lamp from the dark cave of neglect in his lifetime.