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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863 premiere version)
Leila – Julie Fuchs (sop)
Nadir – Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
Zurga – Florian Sempey (bar)
Nourabad – Luc Bertin-Hugault (bass)
Les Cris de Paris/Geoffroy Jourdain
Orchestra National de Lille/Alexandre Bloch
rec. live, 9-11 May 2017, Nouveau Siècle de Lille,
Hybrid SACD
PENTATONE PTC5186685 SACD [48:19 + 61:23]

2020 hasn’t give us much to celebrate so far, with pandemic, lockdown and the cancellation of almost all fun; but this pretty wonderful performance of The Pearl Fishers completely drove away my blues as I listened on a bleak and stormy evening. It’s a delight, giving us the composer’s initial thoughts at the time of the opera’s premiere, and it argues a strong case for the rehabilitation of the piece as a whole.

The whole of Bizet’s operatic output suffers in comparison with the overwhelming success of Carmen, and The Pearl Fishers is the only other one that has had even an attempt at holding the stage. These performers clearly love it, however. Alexander Bloch and his Lille orchestra pay this load of old hokum the enormous compliment of taking it seriously! The orchestra embrace the piece’s orientalism, so un-PC in our age of worrying about cultural appropriation, and, rather than being embarrassed by it, they make something really lovely out of it. There is a sparkle and glitter to the Hindu-influenced musical effects so that they come to life rather than sounding hackneyed. You get that in the rumbustious music of the fishing community, but also in, say, the lovely string solos that accompany Leila's first appearance, and the horns in Leila’s big Act 2 aria sound really delightful.

Bloch conducts this piece as though it were a masterpiece of maturity rather than an also-ran. He knows when to surge forward and when to take his sweet time, and that gives the whole opera a wonderfully convincing shape. He shapes the big ensemble at the end of Act 2 with genuinely impressive clarity and power so that the music never feels like mere note-spinning. For once the whole opera feels like drama rather than a confection of beautiful moments. To see what I mean, listen to the entrancing web of orchestral sound that accompanies Nadir's aria at the end of Act 1, intoxicating in its languid beauty, which then dissolves into a moment of fairy music before Leila's bewitching invocation that ends Act 1. If more conductors treated Bizet like this then I suspect we'd hear this opera a whole lot more.

The singers are just as committed, particularly the two male leads. Florian Sempey brings a tone that’s almost heroic. There is a superb tingle to his description of the arrival of the unknown priestess, and his Act 3 aria is sung with gorgeous tone and controlled emotion. There is beauty and colour aplenty here, which is about all you could ask of this role. Cyrille Dubois is, if anything, even finer as Nadir. Strange as it might sound, his tenor is sensationally French! His light, high voice brings to mind Léopold Simoneau in Jean Fournet’s classic mono recording, which is praise indeed, and the music fits his voice much better than it does, say, Nicolai Gedda in Pierre Dervaux’s EMI set. His high notes, in particular, are a treat: his Act 1 aria is completely ravishing, exactly because he sounds so at home in the stratospheric tessitura. You won't hear that in many other places.

And so the famous Act 1 duet, where the two friends sing together, sounds deliciously fluid, thanks to Bloch’s direction and the magical way that the two voices slot into one another. In this performance it’s a darn sight more subtle than you have any right to expect if you only know it from Björling and Merrill, and the singers save something in reserve for the livelier singing in thirds that ends the duet. It’s hugely satisfying, but it doesn’t dominate thanks to the singers’ selflessness and Bloch’s sense of direction.

Julie Fuchs brings to Leila a light, pearly voice that has a touch of Natalie Dessay to it. There’s a hint of sensuality to her coloratura that works very well for the perfumed world of the oriental temple, particularly in the showpiece ensemble that ends Act 1. Maybe there’s a little hint of effort in her big Act 2 aria "Comme autrefois," but it's only slight, and she is thrillingly secure in both her Act 3 confrontation with Zurga and the Act 2 love duet, which captures all the beauty and drama of the characters' compromised situation. Perhaps Luc Bertin-Hugault’s bass is a little too light to bring the requisite authority to the character of Nourabad, but that’s a tiny blemish in comparison with the other treats on offer.

As hinted in the title, the choruses of the community are critically important to this opera, and it was an inspired choice to use Les Cris de Paris. Most famous recently for their recitals of earlier music, they’re a small and versatile chorus who are capable of energising any emotion or scene. They sound earthy and energetic for fishermen's chorus that dominates the opera’s opening moments, and they’re then transported into something ethereally delicate for the gossamer chorus that greets Leila's entry. They inhabit the mystery of the night and the rage of the bloodthirsty villagers equally well, and they’re a key part of this set’s success.

The Pentatone recording helps too. It’s completely clear, with well-judged balance of singers to orchestra, and the various offstage effects and orientalisms are handled very tastefully. The booklet contains full texts and translations.

If you know the opera then you’ll probably already have your own favourite set: I learnt it through Dervaux and Prêtre, and I’ll always feel affection for them both. But this new set has supplanted them for me as a completely convincing realisation of the opera on disc. This is, after all, one of those operas whose setting tends to make it almost impossible to stage convincingly, either through excessive kitsch of setting it as the libretto demands or by a gritty updating that’s out of step with the music; so these hybrid SACDs are the perfect way to experience it. Listen, and let your cares dissolve in a Ceylonese ocean, whose temperature is as warm as my recommendation.

Simon Thompson

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