The Barber of Bagdad

I’ve been on a small binge lately of listening to Peter Cornelius’s opera The Barber of Bagdad (Der Barbier von Bagdad). I’m a bit surprised to find I own five recordings of it. It’s not a well-known opera, but one I like a lot. For one thing, it’s based on a series of stories out of the 1001 Nights, and I have a soft spot for anything taken from the 1001 Nights. But even apart from that, it’s funny and theatrical and it has terrific music. Plus: a first-rate libretto!

It’s sort of a huge shaggy dog story about a young man in love. He has only a narrow window of time during which he can secretly visit his beloved — her very religious father goes to the nearby mosque every day at noon to pray — and as he has some time before he can show up, he decides he will make himself more presentable with a bath and getting his head freshly shaved. His friend suggests a barber that she knows — a brilliant man, she says, master of many arts and sciences. After she leaves, he shouts out the window after her, “Don’t forget the barber!” (“Vergiss den Barbier nicht!”)

Those words are his doom. The barber arrives, but he turns out to be a foolish old man who can’t stop bragging about what an expert he is on so many subjects, going off on one tangent after another. He has cast a horoscope for the young man, which reveals that he has chosen the most fortunate time on earth to be shaved, and the barber explains the chart in detail while the young man pleads with him to get on with it. When the young man gets so exasperated that he calls the barber an outrageous windbag (unverschämter Schwätzer, to be exact), the barber is offended, and he explains at length how he was actually the quiet one in a family of seven brothers — whom he names and describes, one … by one … by one. It takes the poor young man at least half the first act just to get the barber to start shaving him, and much of the rest of it to get him to complete the job.

Worse, in the second act the barber trails the young man to his secret assignation, intending to be helpful. From the street in front of the young woman’s house, he shouts to the young man inside not to worry, he’s on the lookout in case her father returns early — which of course alerts the whole neighborhood that the young man is there. Then the barber hears the shouts of a slave being beaten, and leaps to the conclusion that the young man is being beaten to death by the father, so he shouts to the neighborhood “Help! Murder!”, raising a crowd in the street outside and making it impossible for the young man to get away without being seen. Before long the poor guy is hiding in a trunk while the father rages at the barber and the room fills up with one group of people after another, who come to try to stop the imaginary murder or side with the father or wail in grief. The caliph’s police arrive to stop the near-riot, and finally the caliph himself appears. After some more confusion, all ends satisfactorily at last and the lovers can marry. (The story in the 1001 Nights has much more of a black comedy ending: The young man not only doesn’t get the girl, he gets one leg badly broken in the chaos, entirely due to the barber, and he walks with a limp ever after.)

It’s a great opera, but it really needs a good English version. A lot of the comedy is in the words, first because they’re often very funny in their own right and second because the style is mock-heroic and if you aren’t getting the ironic juxtaposition of the increasingly serious music and the increasingly absurd situation that is developing, you miss a lot.

I know enough German, and have gotten to know the opera well enough, to follow along now as I listen, but it’s got to be a perplexing opera to listen to in a language you don’t know. It’s never been all that successful outside of Germany, and it probably won’t be if it doesn’t at some point get adapted into other languages, and well. There’s an English-language version published; I haven’t really studied it to get a feel for whether I think it’d work in the theater, but from what I’ve read of it, the language seems very stilted and forced. (It also seems possible to me, though, that what I’m seeing as stilted language is intended, at least, to convey the flavor of the Richard Burton translation of the 1001 Nights. At some point I ought to look more closely at it.)

Cornelius wrote two overtures to the opera, writing the second one at the urging of Liszt, who didn’t like the first one. Of my five recordings, only one includes the second overture, and it seems to be obligatory to say in the liner notes that the composer’s original intentions were of course much superior. Well, as a pure piece of music, I agree; if given a choice of hearing the first or second version as a concert piece by itself, I would without hesitation go with the first. It’s a deliciously sly piece of music, full of charm and atmosphere, while the second version is a much more conventional comic opera overture, not doing much more than stringing together all the best melodies and getting the show off to a lively start. Nevertheless, I think Liszt was right and the second overture is the right one to use in the theater; it’s going to put the audience in a much better frame of mind to enjoy the story that follows.

And it does end with a delicious joke, though one that you have to get to know the opera to catch: The final cadence quotes the melody of “Don’t forget the barber!”

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