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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Les PÍcheurs de perles, Opera in three acts (1863)
LÍÔla, a prietess - Diana Damrau (soprano); Nadir, a huntsman in love with LÍÔla – Matthew Polenzani (tenor); Zurga , chief of the pearl fishers also in love with LÍÔla – Mariusz Kwiecien (baritone); Nourabad, high priest – Nicolas Tastť (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/ Gianandrea Noseda
Stage Director: Penny Woolcock
Set Designer: Dick Bird
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
rec. live January 2016
Video aspect 16:9 NTSC. Sound Formats, PCM Stereo. Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles, French, (original language), English, German and Spanish
Booklet essay in English, German and French.
ERATO DVD 9029 589361 [120.00]

In over fifty odd years of regular opera going I have seen staged performances of Les PÍcheurs 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.8). It became famous because of a 1950s recording by RCA of the duet featuring Swedish tenor Jussi BjŲrling and American baritone Robert Merrill. In the UK the duet regularly featured at number one in the list of Your Hundred Best Tunes, a BBC radio broadcast programme that ran for many years on Sunday evenings. I gather it enjoys similar popularity in Australia today. Yet the performance on that RCA record, is not as Bizet wrote, nor would it be found in any critical edition based on the latest research. It was only in the1880s, after the death of Bizet and the enormous popularity of Carmen, that Les PÍcheurs 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 to close act 1. The theme is reprised at various and appropriate emotional moments throughout the opera.

As far as performances generally are concerned it perhaps says much that this production from New York’s Metropolitan Opera is shared with the UK’s English National Opera and seen there in 2010. The New York premiere, on New Year’s Eve 2015, was the first time Les PÍcheurs de perles has been seen at that theatre since 1915 when the star trio of soloists included Caruso, Frieda Hempel and De Luca and was enthusiastically received. London’s Royal Opera House, perhaps prodded by their neighbours, staged two concert performances in 2010, a full staging has not been seen there for over ninety years.

Set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, the staging in this production is modern with a touch of the orient in women’s dress and the constant placing of the hands together at face level and fingers upwards in the traditional manner.

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, a welcome change from much that emanates from northern Europe these days, and welcome for that. The imaginative opening is as magical here as it was on the big screen at the live transmission at my local Cineworld. After that opening, act one is set in a series of vertical tiers. The population elect Zurga as their leader and swear to obey him with much palming of hands. Nadir arrives, tattoos on his bared arms and later declares his love for LÍÔla (CH.12.). Matthew Polenzani takes the role with good Gallic style and appealing heady plangent tones that occasionally, passing through the passagio, border on a croon. At the Temple LÍÔla unveils herself and sings her first aria as she dedicates to the spirits (CH.14). The aria is very high which Diana Damrau takes with consummate ease and trills to die for.

In act two, at the Temple LÍÔla relates the story of her pearl and when left alone sings her aria of joy (CH.17). Again her singing and acted assumption is of the highest calibre, again with those trills. Some close ups, perhaps a little cruelly, showing she is no young virgin. Nadir arrives and they kiss. She pleads with him to, leave, but before he does so the priest Nourabad arrives and calls the population as the sea boils and Nadir is called traitor. Zirga, who also loves LÍÔla arrives and says kill them both and the sea boils and a tsunami threatens via photographic reality (CHs.20-21).

The set for the final act seems to be a series of tenements, the homes of the populace who are protected by the gods. In his admin office Zurga agonises over his decision to kill both LÍÔla and Nadir. LÍÔla pleads for his life and the finale slowly emerges with the story of LÍÔla’s pearl and the fire than consumes the homes (CHs 22-27).

Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga sings and act with conviction to create a real person whose decisions are to govern the climax. His is a sturdy baritone, neither over covered nor too lean, but expressive to match his convincing acted portrayal. Nicholas Tastť as the priest Nourabad sings tastefully in good French whilst not being over sonorous. The chorus are quite magnificent in their acting and singing whilst on the podium Gianandrea Noseda is master of the idiom and the musical proceedings.

The presentation includes a multi coloured booklet with photographs and a synopsis in three languages. Regrettably there is no track listing.

Robert J Farr



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