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Bizet, Les P�cheurs de perles:  (Concert Performance). Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano.Royal Opera House, London 7.10.2010 (CC)

Zurga - Gerald Finley

Nadir - John Osborn

L��la  - Nicole Cabell

Nourabad - Raymond Aceto


If ENO's recent performances of The Pearl Fishers were generally good, this ROH concert performance of Les P�cheurs de perles completely outstripped them musically. To set the scene: as this was a concert performance (the second of two) orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor were all on the opera stage itself. Billowing 'sound sails' above the orchestra were acoustic adjustments, and first impressions were that this might feel like attending a recording session. The soloists used music and there were no props. In a lesser performance this might have been a distinct disadvantage, for the onus was thrown firmly on the music to prove itself. Pappano seemed to have persuaded his forces that this is a major, not a minor, work and that it is far from uneven in inspiration. In a second-rate performance, recurrences of the theme from the famous duet, 'Au fond du temple sainte'� simply become irritating. Nothing of the sort here; everything Bizet did made complete dramatic sense. The orchestral standard was far higher too, probably most notably in a passage for solo strings in the first act, uncomfortable in St Martin's Lane, a magical tapestry at the Garden.

Right from the off, we were in a different world from the Coliseum. Pappano's handling of the orchestral detail was infinitely more evocative. Strings were rich; the chorus was simply amazing (light and fast of articulation and completely accurate). Pappano seemed to hear the opera in long lines, with a sense of structure and of the individual place of gestures that was almost entirely absent from ENO's traversal of the score. Thus it was that Pappano's preparation for the famous duet was exquisite. The duet itself could justifiably be described as ultra-beautiful. Osborn in particular impressed, placing his phrase beginnings perfectly. Gerald Finley, whose exemplary diction was evident from his first stage entry, was every inch Osborn's equal. Finley's accuracy throughout was noteworthy, in fact, especially the sheer cleanliness of his intervals and slurs. Dramatically, he was faultless, too, especially in the final act where his regret for his actions was almost palpable.

Even though Alfie Boe had not quite disappointed at the Coliseum, he is no match for John Osborn's ringing tenor. If Boe is one end of the operatic spectrum, Osborn is the other. Osborn's lyric sense of legato is most impressive, also. A pity there was a sense of strain at the top of his voice in his 'Je crois entendre encore' (including a slight crack), as the aria as a whole was remarkably delicate. Complementing all this was the huge bass voice of Raymond Aceto as the High Priest of Brahma, Nourabad.

Despite the excellence of all around her, it was Nicole Cabell who was the clear star of the evening. Her voice is gorgeous, cut from the finest velvet. It was in the second act that Cabell had her chances to shine, and she took each and every one of them. Her recollection of past times ('Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre') was perhaps the highlight here, culminating in one of the finest vocal trills I have been privileged to hear. Interesting that Pappano gave prominence to the horns at this point, a hunting pair that suddenly seemed to wrench us into the world of Weber's Freisch�tz.In the final act, it was notable that, while one revelled in Finley's strengths, when Cabell entered it was evident that she was finer still.

The chorus was amazing, particularly in its Act I paean to Brahma, and in Act II, in their cries to Brahma to protect them. There was hardly a weak moment in the entire performance, which, incidentally, is due for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, October 30th.


Colin Clarke


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