Open Sesame! Ali Baba, Aladdin and the adventures of Sinbad have transfixed generations, but very few tales from The Arabian Nights have successfully crossed the footlights onto the operatic stage. In 1898, Ravel composed an ouverture de féerie but never fulfilled his intention of writing an opera to follow it. Ballets Russes performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade – starring Vaslav Nijinsky as the Golden Slave – fired imaginations in Paris in 1910. Among them was Henri Rabaud who set the minor tale of Ma'aruf, a poor cobbler from Cairo, for the Opéra Comique.

Jean-Sébastien Bou (Mârouf) and Lionel Peintre (Ali) © Vincent Pontet
Jean-Sébastien Bou (Mârouf) and Lionel Peintre (Ali)
© Vincent Pontet

At its 1914 première, Mârouf, savetier du Caire proved a hit, prompting composer Florent Schmitt to declare it "one of the most interesting shows that the Opéra Comique has put up for a long time." It played 129 performances at the Salle Favart until 1927, then another 116 performances at the Palais Garnier through to 1950. Rabaud's oriental sweetmeat tasted international success too, Pierre Monteux conducting it at The Metropolitan Opera as early as 1917. In the latter half of the 20th century, Mârouf fell into obscurity until rescued in 2013 by director Jérôme Deschamps, whose witty production is now happily revived at the Opéra Comique under Marc Minkowski and his forces of the Opéra National de Bordeaux.

<i>Mârouf, savetier du Caire</i>, Act 3 © Vincent Pontet
Mârouf, savetier du Caire, Act 3
© Vincent Pontet

The plot is worthy of pantomime. Mârouf is the hen-pecked husband of Fattoumah, who demands he brings her some kanafeh sweetened with honey. But Mârouf is poor and when he offers her the cake sweetened with sugar instead, she explodes with anger, feigning physical abuse and calling the judge. Mârouf is publicly whipped and takes his chance to escape with a group of sailors. Washing up shipwrecked in a souk in Khaitan, Mârouf bumps into an old friend, who dresses him as a rich merchant and tells him to declare he is awaiting his fleet of ships. This attracts the attentions of the Sultan who, impressed with the young man's character – and wealth – offers his daughter's hand in marriage. The slippery Vizier smells a rat when the merchandise fails to show up but Mârouf confesses all to the beautiful Princess Saamcheddine and they escape. In their flight, Mârouf helps a fellah with his ploughing and uncovers a hoard of treasure. When Saamcheddine rubs a ring, the old man turns into a genie and – with the vizier in hot pursuit – Mârouf swiftly wishes for a fleet of ships loaded down with merchandise to save his neck. Enter laden camels and let the general rejoicing begin!

<i>Mârouf, savetier du Caire</i>, Act 5 © Vincent Pontet
Mârouf, savetier du Caire, Act 5
© Vincent Pontet

Deschamps' production plays up to the cartoon aspects of this tale. Olivia Fercioni's flatpack sets have the simplicity of pages from a pop-up book, while Vanessa Sannino's lavish costumes see the cast in outsized turbans which give away their profession or character – the baker with a giant cake on his head, the muezzin a loudhailer, the vizier a wily fox. Princess Saamcheddine enters, veiled, in a gown which balloons like a giant pumpkin. There are no concessions to political correctness here – the original tale doesn't invite it – and the result is a riot of colour, both visually and musically. Rabaud's score draws on the exotic with oboe arabesques, vocal ululations and driving percussion, particularly in the ballet scene with its trumpet fanfares. It's a work of the Belle Époque, but there are Russian influences too – the arrival of the Sultan echoes Rimsky's Viking Guest in Sadko – as well as Strauss and Wagner, the score admirably performed by the Orchestre National de Bordeaux-Aquitaine under Minkowski's ebullient direction. 

Vannina Santoni (Princess Saamcheddine) and Jean-Sébastien Bou (Mârouf) © Vincent Pontet
Vannina Santoni (Princess Saamcheddine) and Jean-Sébastien Bou (Mârouf)
© Vincent Pontet

Jean-Sébastien Bou's splendid high baritone rang heroically through the Salle Favart as Mârouf, a performance full of wit but of pathos too. His honeyed serenade was beautiful, accompanied by a harp imitating an oud. Vannina Santoni, a light lyric soprano, was perfectly entrancing as Princess Saamcheddine, while Jean Teitgen's sepulchral bass resounded thunderously as the Sultan. Franck Leguérinel's baritone was more wiry, but his Vizier played up to the pantomime villain nicely, engaging in sporting byplay with the audience. Minor roles were mostly well taken and Peeping Tom's choreography raised a chuckle, except where the donkey decided to hog the limelight in the final act.

I'm not sure how well Mârouf would travel internationally these days, but performed so lovingly in the jewel box interior of the Opéra Comique, it's something of a minor treasure.

****1