''One of the feeblest things Cherubini ever wrote.'' That was the verdict of Berlioz on Ali Baba's Paris premiere in 1833. After a few discouraging performances in Germany the opera then rested till 1963 when at La Scala hopes were raised that it might prove a comic counterpart to the tragic masterpiece, Medea, a kind of Falstaff joyfully celebrating the survival of the spirit in old age. ''Banal'' was the verdict on this occasion: ''a boring piece tricked out with inferior music'', according to Claudio Sartori who considered that the revival ''so far from enhancing Cherubini's stature may even threaten to diminish it''. A barely adequate recording now renews the threat, but of course it can be argued that people have a right to make up their own minds, and it may even be true, as the writer of the sleeve-note holds, that the opera is ''still awaiting (and still deserves) examination by an epoch such as ours which will finally be able to attempt a dispassionate evaluation''.
The Scala revival, apparently, was not a ''sufficient test''. A sleeve-note is hardly the place to look to for ''dispassionate evaluation'' of the performance it is introducing. Still, it seems, vocally and musically at least, that the production gave the work every chance of establishing its merits. Nino Sanzogno conducts a performance that is not without sparkle, and since the audience applauds twice at the rise of curtain one may presume that at least the scenery gave pleasure to the sight. Alfredo Kraus does his best in the opening scene to suggest that it is going to be a good evening. With his customary lyric style and brightly edged tone he does full justice to the grace of his solo which he caps with a magnificent high C. In the title-role, sounding young and resonant, Ganzarolli makes the most of his opportunities, and his counterpart, Paolo Montarsolo, brings plenty of character and weight to the role of the wily Captain of Customs (whose men set fire to 40 bags of contraband coffee unaware that each contains one of the celebrated thieves). Teresa Stich-Randall as Ali Baba's lovely daughter makes some appropriately lovely sounds and others of the hooty-fruity nature that sometimes gave rise to modified rapture over the work of this genuinely distinguished singer (there are times here when her purity and precision evoke the hallowed name of Marcella Sembrich). Then there is the trio of mildly comical brigands, the sonorous Agostino Ferrin among them, who also do nothing to let the performing side down. So attention turns again to Cherubini's music—which is habitually square and symmetrical. The dances are especially trivial and there are a good many of them. The harmonies and rhythms arouse minimal interest, and the melodies are unmemorable.
Recorded sound, dull-edged and restrictive, may do less than justice to the orchestration, but equally well there is little to suggest that given a new and better recording the orchestration would do much to repay the investment. No: Berlioz and Claudio Sartori between them probably had it about right.'