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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Les pêcheurs de perles (1863) [118:00]
Léïla - Patrizia Ciofi
Nadir - Dmitry Korchak
Zurga – Dario Solari
Nourabad – Roberto Tagliavini
Orchestra, Chorus and Corps de Ballet of the Teatro di San Carlo/Gabriele Ferro
rec. live, Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, 23-25 October 2012
Video director: Davide Mancini
Filmed in High Definition
Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: A/B/C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 719604/DVD 719608 [118:00]

Just as, I suspect, many others will do, on acquiring this disc I immediately accessed track 7. That, as you will have guessed, if you have even a passing acquaintance with The pearl fishers, got me straight to the tenor/baritone declaration of what they naively assume to be eternal comradeship, Au fond du temple saint.

The classic recording by Jussi Björling and Roberto Merrill has always been much loved. For many years it was invariably at or near the top of the popularity chart compiled by BBC Radio 2's long-running programme Your Hundred Best Tunes. It continues to offer a high tingle-factor benchmark to any competitor.

In several ways it's unfair to compare that Björling/Merrill recording with the version offered on this Blu-ray Disc. The older artists were pretty much at the height of their powers when they made that recording in 1951. Moreover, they made it as a stand-alone taping, in the comparative calm and controlled environment of a professional studio.

Messrs Korchak and Solari on this Blu-ray Disc are, on the other hand, performers who, while obviously accomplished, have yet to reach the very highest rung of their profession. Moreover, they were also recorded during the extra stress of performing live in the opera house with no opportunity for a retake.

In fact, in that particular duet, the younger men do very well. The Russian tenor Korchak begins a little tentatively but soon gets securely to grips with the music, so that he's suitably full of ardour at the duet's emotional high point (Oui, c'est elle! C'est la déesse, Plus charmante et plus belle!). His partner, the Uruguay-born Solari, sings strongly and confidently throughout with a most attractive vocal timbre. They make a well balanced pair who listen closely to each other and are clearly comfortable in each other's company. As a result, just as with Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill more than sixty years ago, the overall effect is both strongly virile yet sensitive and pleasing to the ear.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Having been reassured that we're not going to be disappointed by the delivery of the opera's "Big Number", we need to start again at the beginning.

This Blu-ray Disc preserves a relatively straightforward and pared-down production of Bizet's contribution to the 19th century fad for orientalism. Thankfully there are no gimmicks or weird directorial conceits in evidence. This version’s "Ceylon" is much more simply represented than it would have been on the stage in Bizet's day. Act 1 is set on a beach, with nothing more to see than undulating dunes and a withered, bleached tree stump. More sand dunes appear in Act 2, although this time they are the setting for an Ozymandias-like half-submerged giant Buddha head, offering not only a little visual variety but a perch on which the heroine, as and when required, can play hide-and-seek with the hero. The third Act set is initially a temple facade overgrown by tree trunks and roots, rather reminiscent of the Khmer ruins of Ta Promh; its second scene returns us to the beach, though this time on a stretch dominated by an enormous tree, around which the climax of the story unfolds.

All the sets are perfectly serviceable and, by their very restraint, allow the singers, quite properly, to dominate the stage. They do, though, occasionally make nonsense of the words - as when Zurga, in the closing pages, exhorts the lovers to "escape by this pathway" when all around, right to the edge of the stage, is simply bare sand. The final minute also brings an odd touch when, as Zurga is singing alone at the front of the stage, the curtain is brought down behind him. His final few words are actually sung in front of it, as if addressing the audience directly. Maybe, given that his final word of all is "Adieu!", director Fabio Sparvoli is thereby attempting a little joke?

The three lead singers themselves are impressive. Tenor Dmitry Korchak demonstrates convincing versatility. Genuinely affecting in his Act 1 aria Je crois entendre encore, he can display, just a few moments later, a convincing combination of the heroic (Me voici! Je suis là! Prêt à donner mes jours, mon sang pour te défendre!) and the lyrical. In the second Act, his duet with Patrizia Ciofi is a particular success. Ms Ciofi hit the UK headlines two years ago when she was famously parachuted in at short notice to take on a leading role in Covent Garden's production of Robert le diable (see here). Clearly regarded on that occasion as a safe pair of hands, she is rather more than that here. Though not the greatest of actresses, her very attractive voice is enough to convince us of the love she feels for Nadir and, in her moving confrontation with Zurga, her willingness to sacrifice herself to save him. The exciting emotional climax of that scene (De mon amour pour lui tu m'oses faire un crime?) is also very powerfully and convincingly done. That also offers an opportunity to the usually stolid figure of Zurga to demonstrate, in the intensity of his hatred, far more animation than he does elsewhere. Dario Solari does his considerable best with that implausibly written part, imperturbably skating over a variety of emotional U-turns that would leave anyone else a candidate for the proverbial psychiatrist's couch. He is helped considerably by a powerful voice that is sensitively used - as when he matches it perfectly to those of the two lovers in their final trio (Ô lumière sainte, ô divine étreinte!).

The San Carlo chorus do a good job as Indian Ocean fisher-folk, variously credulous, outraged or homicidal, and judging from their beaming smiles at curtain call they seem to have had a great time. The orchestra lends solid support under the experienced baton of veteran conductor Gabriele Ferro, a sprightly seventy-five year old at the time of this performance, who conjures up tenderness or passion as required. Both the picture and the sound on my copy of the Blu-ray Disc version were of a very high standard.

While the Björling/Merrill recording will no doubt continue giving huge pleasure to many, there is certainly more to Les pêcheurs de perles than just that one duet. This new recording of a well presented performance provides an excellent opportunity to discover that all over again.

Rob Maynard

A review of the DVD version ...

Premiered at the Paris Théâtre Lyrique on 30 September 1863, a month before Bizet’s twenty fifth birthday, Les Pêcheurs de perles was the composer's sixth opera, but only the second to be staged. Circumstances determined that the composition was something of a rush job for Bizet who used some music from his earlier works. The opera was only modestly received despite Berlioz recognising significant qualities within it, including "a considerable number of beautiful expressive moments, filled with fire and rich colours". Les Pêcheurs de perles ran for eighteen performances and was never revived in Bizet’s short lifetime. He died at the young age of thirty-six shortly after the premiere of Carmen and never knowing the great success of the latter work.

Les Pêcheurs de perles tells the story of the virgin priestess Lêïla, who is loved by two men, Zurga, chief of the pearl fishers and his friend Nadir. They are torn between their friendship and their love of the same woman. Complications come in the last act as Nadir’s life is held in the hand of Zurga whilst Lêïla pleads that she be sacrificed and that he be released.

Set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, this production is half naturalistic and half imaginary orient. The costumes look authentic Indian with turbans worn by the men and saris by the women. The set in act one is a simple beach with the remains of a washed-up tree. In act two a massive toppled Buddha’s head lies in the sand; there is a touch more realism in both scenes of act three. A director’s quirk, albeit an elegant one, is the inclusion of dancers as spirits. All in all this is no producer concept setting, but one that allows for imagination whilst being one that Bizet would recognise as his work. It makes a welcome change from much that emanates from northern Europe these days.

In over fifty odd years of regular opera-going I have seen staged performances of Les Pêcheurs de perles only a couple of times, yet it is an operatic name with echoes for many who have never seen a staged opera, yet alone this one. This is because of one duet from the work, that between Nadir and Zurga in act one, Au fond du temple saint (Ch.7). It became famous because of a 1950s recording by RCA of the duet featuring Swedish tenor Jussi Björling and American baritone Robert Merrill. In the UK the duet regularly featured at number one in the list of Your Hundred Best Tunes, a programme broadcast by the BBC; one that ran for many years on Sunday evenings. I gather it enjoys similar popularity in Australia today. Yet the performance on that RCA record, and in this staging, is not as Bizet wrote and nor would it be found in any Critical Edition based on the latest research. It was only in the 1880s, after the death of Bizet and the enormous popularity of Carmen that Les Pêcheurs de perles was performed again in France. At this time Bizet’s publishers, Choudens, aware of the popularity of the duet, allowed a verse reprise as well as other so-called improvements. This is the version heard in this performance.

In a recent review of love duets by the American husband and wife team of Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez (review), I commented on their command of the Gallic style as exemplified in the love duet from Faust. I was particularly impressed with his high floated notes and expressiveness allied to the French language vocal inflection and phrasing. A lack of those qualities is evident in this performance with its polyglot cast. Dmitry Korchak particularly disappointed me. He had impressed me in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Pesaro in 2011, when I admired his clear forward tone and flexible voice. I suggested that he would grace many of Rossini’s opera seria roles written for Naples’ Giovanni David (review). Regrettably, I find his tone harder now and with more edge whilst showing little sympathy, or knowledge, of the French vocal style. Neither of his two male fellow principals are particularly notable in that respect although Dario Solari has better moments in this regard. What is possible for singers inured in Italian operatic style is exemplified by the portrayal of Lêïla by Patrizia Ciofi. She acts every one else off the stage and carries her awareness of the French words and vocal approach into her portrayal. Gabrielle Ferro paces the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples well and seems more at home with the French idiom than his cast.
Robert J Farr