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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Georges BIZET (1838-1875) Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863)
Mariusz Kwiezien (baritone) – Zurga: Matthew Polenzani (tenor) – Nadir: Diana Damrau (soprano) – Leila: Nicolas Testé (bass) – Nourabad: Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Gianadrea Noseda
rec. live Metropolitan Opera, New York, 16 January 2016 No extras ERATO 9029589360 Blu-ray [120 mins]
Opera, musicals and ballet are of course the three musical artforms which benefit most from the provision of the visual element; and opera is primarily so, because the availability on DVD of subtitles in what are frequently works written in a foreign language makes them peculiarly enhanced in dramatic terms. It is therefore a cause for some concern that so many of the DVDs of opera which are currently available come in modern productions where the degree of re-interpretation of both text and music often jars uncomfortably with the composer’s original conceptions which are so closely highlighted by the medium itself. Examples are far too numerous to be cited, but time and time again the heart sinks when one reads in a review of a musically excellent performance that it is best encountered “with the eyes shut” – which surely completely negates the point of having the performance on DVD at all. Wagner particularly seems to be susceptible to such directorial glosses, and in reviews on this site over the years I have castigated productions which in seeking to overcome perceived tradition seem intent on substituting an ill-considered orthodoxy of their own (all the gods onstage from the beginning of the second scene of Rheingold, Fafner turning back into a giant in Siegfried, etc) which not only override Wagner’s original dramatic specifications but actually contradict and undermine his musical argument as well.
For those who agree with this point of view the series of DVD releases from performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York frequently offer balm. Constrained by the need to please a paying and subscribing audience, the productions usually adhere closely to the composer’s original specifications and display a willingness to spend money to achieve the results on show. (Not that modern re-interpretations necessarily come cheap.) There is of course a flip-side to this. All too often the constraints of the Met’s performing schedules mean that singers are shoehorned into roles with clearly inadequate rehearsal, with deleterious results particularly in dramatic terms. An element of routine, of doing things ‘by the book’ without sufficient thought or consideration, creeps in; and sometimes singers give the impression of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the auditorium with the result that they have to simply stand and deliver, forcing their voices in an effort to be heard. This can make for especially uncomfortable results when the performances are subjected to the close-up scrutiny of the video camera.
In recent years considerations such as these appear to have forced some rethink by the Met of their production styles, with some new stagings which are more willing to court controversy by more unconventional interpretation of the operas concerned. As always with such a procedure the results can be a mixed bag, except for those critics (presumably those jaded with such ‘conventional’ productions as they can find nowadays) who crave novelty at all costs. Such considerations will certainly arise in the case of this updating of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers to the current day, some 150 years after the opera’s first production. But the opera was always regarded as contemporary by Bizet’s first audiences (as indeed was Carmen) and the problems of sheer inconsistency between the composer’s original vision and a modern staging present nothing like the anomalies that arise in more historically grounded or legendary operas with their paraphernalia of swords, shields and spears (often jarringly retained even in the context of updated productions). Penny Woolcock’s production here, originally staged by English National Opera, creates no such jarring inconsistencies while at the same time providing a fresh outlook on the drama. Earlier reviews have concentrated on some of the more spectacular special effects – the diving sequence during the prelude (repeated somewhat unnecessarily as a backdrop during Leila’s Second Act aria) or the tsunami which overwhelms the stage at the end of Act Two – but these are almost incidental in a performance which concentrates so purposefully on the relationships between the characters.
This relationship is observed most perceptively in the passage early on which leads up to the famous duet, for many years the one ‘number’ which kept the score alive. Here there is no hint of “we are coming to a musical highlight, prepare yourselves while we shift into gear”; instead the interplay between tenor and baritone grows naturally out of the dramatic situation. This is helped even more by the carefully portrayed characterisation of the singers. Matthew Polenzani, a regular at the Metropolitan, has previously only come to my notice in relatively small roles; but here he emerges as a real star. His voice has the heft to ride over the climactic passages, but his controlled mezza voce and head voice are a miracle. He even contrives to deliver the interpolated high C at the end of his aria in the most delicate pianissimo imaginable. By his side Mariusz Kwiecien is a dramatic Zurga, who manages to convey his sometimes abrupt changes of motivation with perfect credibility. Last year I had admired his assumption of the title role in King Roger; here he displays himself equally at ease with the more bel canto demands of Bizet. Diana Damrau handles her coloratura in Act One with consummate ease, but also has plenty of the spitfire in her voice for the demands of the later Acts. Of the four principals only Nicolas Testé seems to be underpowered for his thunderous denunciations of sacrilege; but then again he, like the others at times, may suffer from the curious fact that the sound of voices just to the left of the stage seem to be somewhat ‘off mike’. Otherwise this must be regarded as one of the most consistently fine casts that the Pearl Fishers have received over the years.
The costumes and sets are wonderfully designed, even down to the boat in which Leila is brought to shore in Act One, and manage to make the somewhat artificial placing of the characters at the end of Act One believable. Zurga becomes a sort of dictator figure in Woolcock’s staging, but then this accords well with the absolute power he is given in the original libretto with the ability to order or cancel executions almost at a whim. Nadir might look rather like a graduate student from an American campus, but Polenzani has an engaging manner and attractively open face which win over this viewer immediately. By his side Leila and Nourabad look authentically Sinhalese, the chorus more or less so. The setting is unremittingly urban – this is an industrialised and commercialised seashore community, not a conventionally prettified beach with palm-trees – but nothing contradicts what the music is telling us, and Zurga’s office which replaces his hut in Act Three is convincingly business-like. A nice touch is the beginning of the scene (which follows without a break from the tsunami at the end of the previous Act) where Zurga comes in from the storm to dry himself off and change his clothes, just as he would in real life, before lighting up a cigarette to calm his nerves. It is oddly enough little moments like this that make the conventional dramatic situations into something so gripping and precisely observed.
The opera has been the subject of some textual controversy over the years; its theatrically successful revival following Bizet’s death was given in a version by Ernest Guiraud (the editor who has also provided the recitatives for Carmen, long ubiquitous in opera houses throughout the world) which re-ordered the score in the last act and replaced the final section of the famous duet with a reprise of earlier material. The latter amendment is adopted here (audiences would be reluctant to forsake a favourite edition in favour of the frankly inferior original) but otherwise the score is given as Bizet originally envisioned it. Gianandrea Noseda does not pull any punches, and does not seek to apologise for Bizet’s sometimes clumsy transitions from one number to another. The orchestra responds magnificently to him, although the large chorus sounds surprisingly underpowered in the climactic hymns to Brahma in the First and Second Acts.
In summation therefore, this is a quite simply marvellous re-imagining of Bizet’s beautifully perfumed score, one that never ever jars despite its existence in a time that the composer could never have envisaged. Subtitles are given in English, French, German and Spanish; booklet notes in the first three of these languages. The spoken on-screen introductions by Patricia Racette are supernumerary, but mercifully brief. The HD picture quality on Blu-Ray is superlative.