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Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
The Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs des Perles) (1863) (Highlights: sung in English)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone) – Zurga; Barry Banks (tenor) – Nadir; Rebecca Evans (soprano) – Leďla; Alastair Miles (bass) - Nourabad
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Brad Cohen
rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 10-12 September 2007. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN3156 [79.00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a highlights disc in the Opera in English series by Chandos sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation. 

The opera itself ran for eighteen performances in 1863 and then lay forgotten until after the composer’s death. It was the success of Carmen which prompted the publishers Choudens to re-publish The Pearl Fishers.

The disc under review includes the opening prelude and all the music up to the famous duet for Nadir and Zurga, then Nadir’s Romance, and the final Air with chorus from Act 1; Leila’s Cavatina and the duet with Nadir from Act 2; Zurga’s Air, his duet with Leďla and their scene with the priest Nourabad where they prepare for their execution, from Act 3.  So, apart from the very end of the opera, we have the main turning points of the plot represented here.

After the Prelude, the chorus open with their songs and dances and set the festive mood which belies the tragic nature of the opera. After they elect Zurga as their leader, we have the return of Nadir and the recognition scene, leading to the duet ‘Then, from the holy shrine’ (Au fond du temple saint). This last is not with the usual ending but the original 1863 version, which comes as quite a surprise to those used to the more traditional one.  Both singers deliver the text with clarity, and their voices are well matched.  Barry Banks is very Italianate and has none of the traditional ‘French’ sound. Nonetheless he gives an elegant account of the romance with lovely poised pp high notes in each verse. We do without the ‘traditional’ melisma over the orchestral postlude at the end.

The final air with chorus ‘Brahma the god’ (Oh Dieu Brahma) rounds off the first act where the priestess Leila, while singing in praise of the god Brahma, recognises Nadir’s voice. Rebecca Evans takes the opening with good legato and the coloratura in the final section is delicately placed. She has the bonus of a real trill.

The Act 2 selection is Leila’s Cavatina beautifully expressing her reawakened love after hearing Nadir.  He then makes his way into the enclosure and they are reunited in a rapturous duet declaring their love in spite of the dangers. This is sung by both singers with an ardour fitting with the sentiments expressed.

Act 3 focuses on Zurga’s remorse and then his anger at the events. Simon Keenlyside uses his not inconsiderable skills to convey all the conflicting emotions of this character. This is evident in the duet where he begins sympathetically disposed to Leila, but changes when he learns the true situation of her love towards Nadir.  There follows the scene where the two condemned profess their undying love in the face of death.

There are two bonus tracks.  The first is a trio attributed to the composer Benjamin Godard, where Nadir and Zurga sing of their love for Leila, who accepts them both. The second is the traditional version of the duet ‘Then, from the holy shrine’ (Au fond du temple saint).

The orchestra play extremely well throughout with a good sense of the French style. Brad Cohen never allows the singers to be overwhelmed, and lets them sing well within their capacity so they don’t have to strain to be heard.  The chorus give solid support when required and sing with verve and energy in the opening dances. The recording is well balanced with some attempt at perspective: offstage singing, singers moving across the stereo image and the like. 

The English translation used here is by David Parry.  It is a more modern idiomatic translation than in my old Choudens score, but without the use of very modern TV soap-opera style expressions.  The text generally comes across well and is, for the most part understandable, which is a credit to the singers and the listed vocal consultant, Ludmilla Andrew.

The extensive booklet, as usual with these issues, has articles about the opera; a full plot summary of the whole opera; biographies of the singers and conductor - this last in English, French, German, and Italian. There’s also a full English text as sung.

This is one of the most enjoyable highlights CDs I have heard for a long while.

Arther Smith


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