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Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
Les Pêcheurs de Perles - Opera in three acts (1863)
Léïla … Annick Massis (soprano)
Nadir … Yasu Nakajima (tenor)
Zurga … Luca Grassi (baritone)
Nourabad. … Luigi De Donato (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro La Fenice di Venezia/Marcello Viotti
rec. Teatro Malibran, Venice, April 2004
Director, set and costume designer: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Artistic Director: Sergio Segolini
Choreographer: Gheorghe Iancu
Lighting: Sergio Rossi
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Region 0 – all regions; Video system NTSC; Sound Format PCM Stereo Dolby Digital 2.0; Notes Italian English German French; Subtitles Italian English German French Spanish Chinese Japanese; Picture Format 16:9;
DYNAMIC 33459 [122:00]

 


There is so much that is stunningly good in this production that it seems unfair to feature the less than satisfactory aspects, but any balanced review must do so.

Unfortunately the pacing is uneven. It would be a kindness to write that the overture sets off at an unhurried tempo. This does nothing to extract the emotive musical phrases and in places it almost removes any legato. Equally at the end of some of the arias/songs there is a musical break whilst the orchestra either gears up for the next number or pauses to allow for applause which does not follow.

Luca Grassi (Zurga) has the central role. He is the pearl fishers’ leader whose vocal and acting commitment carries the production forward. At times, when not centre-stage-front, his voice seems to become lost in even this comparatively small theatre. Maybe that is because his is not the open voice to which we are so accustomed. Despite this, and the almost permanent scowl, this is indeed Zurga. And who wouldn’t scowl: betrayed in love for the priestess by his best friend; she in turn betrays her religious vows for that love; having condemned both to death he sets fire to his own village as a diversion to facilitate their escape. And Grassi carries all this vocally with great dignity. 

Whereas Yasu Nakajima, as Nadir, ‘gets the girl’, or priestess in this case, he does not really focus on her. Vocally we have some strong phrasing with varied dynamics and a seriously open sound. Nevertheless this seems to be Nakajima in a costume rather than Nadir in love. When greeting Grassi’s Zurga there is little evidence of warmth of tone or feeling for an old friend not seen for some time. OK the libretto is not the greatest by a long way but he seems to me to fail to connect. The same is true when he sings with his beloved: Annick Massis as Léïla. Eye contact is occasional and he spends too much time looking away from her – perhaps at a conductor-TV-screen side stage – but whatever it is it undermines any belief in overpowering love.

Conversely, Annick Massis is totally involved and totally convincing. Her Léïla is indeed the priestess who in her youth saved Zurga and who now loves Nadir. She has the perfect voice for the role with its bell-like clarity rising to an almost ethereal sound. The Act I Finale, including and in particular Dans le ciel sans voile gives her the opportunity to show her voice at its best which she does non pareil: total vocal security, superb trills, wonderful runs and stunning breath control. Quite inspirational. The same is true of her duets with both Grassi and Nakajima; she is at all times Léïla even when singing with one or other of them on the opposite side of the stage: as in Act III with Grassi in Je frémis, je chancelle.

In that scene some clever camera/video work with merging shots puts them close together and back to back when actually singing on opposite sides of the stage. It is tremendously effective. Indeed the video work throughout has very many excellent features. I particularly enjoyed some of the triple shots in the well known tenor/baritone duet Au fond du temple saint sung against a background ballet of a single dancer using a rope to aid her seriously fluid movements. The said shotcutters became carried away at the end of the powerful Finale of Act II when in a single minute they managed to squeeze in 10 different camera shots. Yes, there was a lot going on but I would have appreciated it better if I could have seen one view for a little longer.

The ‘lot going on’ refers not only to the soloists and chorus but also to the small (6) but very evocative corps de ballet: very polished throughout and with only one or two very minor exceptions, choreographed and performed superbly. Sadly the DVD cover, shown above does not include them which is a pity because this is French opera where a ballet is almost integral. Certainly this ‘corps’ make it so even if some of the entrances / exits are not so smooth. A failure that can be laid at the door of a curious set.

Front of stage is what could be described as a wide double sided raised skateboard ramp on which the soloists spend most of their time. Behind that are a series of steps rising from a point lower than the ramp, up to the temple. A consequence of this layout is that to reach front of stage on the ramp stairs must be climbed. When I first saw the setting I did wonder about an oblique religious crescent reference but dismissed the thought immediately: this is ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka in the twenty first century).

Thus the chorus are either in the ‘well’ behind the ramp or on the temple steps , or both, neither of which locations make for smooth entrances / exits. Furthermore that contributes to an impression of their lack of involvement – as if they are watchers of the events on the stage front ramp.

Of course, with a DVD there is no libretto. Fortunately there are subtitles; a necessity here because with the exception of Massis, the diction is not strong. Perhaps with sub-titles, and surtitles in the live theatre, there will be less and less emphasis on this, about which to avoid a debate, I will just say that that would be a pity: a clear and well-pronounced language is fundamental to the story-telling and adds considerably to the overall enjoyment.

A brief internet search shows that you can purchase this DVD at a fraction over £20. Is it worth it? Yes is the unequivocal answer for some very good reasons: the performances of, first Annick Massis and second Luca Grassi with the corps de ballet pushing them very hard for a higher place. And that ignores the strength of Bizet’s melodic numbers which are not limited to that famous duet.

Robert McKechnie

 

 


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