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Abu Hassanlocked

  • Clive Brown

Singspiel in one act, j106, by Carl Maria von Weber to a libretto by Franz Carl Hiemer after Antoine Galland’s story Le dormeur éveillé; Munich, Residenztheater, 4 June 1811.

Hiemer based his libretto on the second part of Galland’s version of the well-known tale of ‘Abu Hassan, or The Sleeper Awakened’ from the Arabian Thousand and One Nights. In the opera Abu Hassan (tenor), cup-bearer to the Caliph, and his devoted wife Fatime (soprano) are being pressed for payment of debts by the moneylender Omar (bass), who is also unsuccessfully making advances to Fatime. Abu Hassan hits on the idea of pretending that his wife has died and claiming money from the Caliph (speaking role) for her funeral, while Fatime does the same with the Caliph’s wife, Zobeide (speaking role). They succeed in their plot, but when the Caliph and Zobeide try to discover which of them is really dead they both feign death. Abu Hassan, however, leaps up and reveals the subterfuge when he hears the Caliph offer 10 000 gold dinars to anyone who can clear up the mystery. For about half the opera Omar is imprisoned in a cupboard, where he has been forced to hide because of the unexpected return of Abu Hassan while Omar was trying to make love to the reluctant Fatime. Fatime explains to her husband, in an undertone, what has happened, and they decide to punish Omar by leaving him there in fear of discovery. When the Caliph is informed of Omar’s activities by Abu Hassan, at the end of the opera, he orders the cupboard to be taken to the city prison.

Weber received the text of Abu Hassan from Hiemer at the end of March 1810, but did not begin to work seriously on it for some time. It was not until late summer, shortly before the première of Silvana in Frankfurt, that he started to commit the new opera to paper. He began, in August, with the chorus of creditors, ‘Geld! Geld! Geld!’, an appropriate choice in view of his own recent experiences with moneylenders. The other seven numbers of the original version followed in haphazard succession during the remainder of the year, and on 12 January he completed the overture. In this form it was given in Munich some five months later. For a performance in Gotha in 1813 he added a new duet for Abu Hassan and Fatime, and for a revival in Dresden in 1823 he composed Fatime’s lament over the supposed death of Abu Hassan.

Like Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which seems to have acted as Weber’s inspiration, Abu Hassan contains far greater richness and variety than the majority of Singspiels. Mozart’s musical influence is particularly evident in such ensembles as the Terzetts ‘Ich such’ in allen Ecken’ and ‘Ängstlich klopft es mir im Herz’ as well as in several of the solo numbers. But the opera also contains many instances of Weber’s own individuality, and his gift for lively characterization is apparent throughout. The two added numbers, the full-blooded love duet ‘Thränen, Thränen’ and Fatime’s sentimental lament ‘Hier liegt’, are splendid in their own right, though somewhat out of style with the rest of the opera. Weber’s instrumentation is full of delightful touches: he augmented the standard orchestra with a pair of guitars that are tellingly employed in Abu Hassan’s aria ‘Ich gebe Gastereien’, and made use of ‘Turkish’ percussion in several numbers.