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.
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
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
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.
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.