Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Bizet Pearl Fishers in concert ROH

Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles is notoriously hard to stage. Because the plot's so grandiose, the imagination works overtime, dwarfing the music, making it seem puny in comparison. There's a lot to be said in favour of concert performances because they shift the balance back to Bizet.

What was striking in this performance of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (Pearl Fishers) at the Royal Opera House was how delicate much of Bizet's writing really is. It doesn't jump up and grab you like the tunes from Carmen. Bizet knows zilch about Indian music but in his imagination it's delicate and refined - Le petit Trianon India, as authentic as 18th century "oriental" wallpaper. Since nowadays we think of India with more realism, we're not conditioned to Bizet's watercolours.

Dispense with the "orientalism" and think of Les Pêcheurs de Perles as French countryside, and the opera falls into perspective. Kings and Priests dominate because peasants are superstitious, and think holy Virgins will protect them.  When the chorus sings of Brahma they could as easily be singing of Jesus. Get away from extreme exotic images and the music makes sense on its own terms.

Antonio Pappano is wise to let this delicacy breathe: over-expansive gestures are best left to the histrionic narrative. Bizet imagines India in delicate, refined string textures, flute trills and gently beaten cymbals.  Crescendi build up like swells in the ocean, diminuendos evoking gracious submission. Lovely bell-like miniatures throughout evoking an idea of the East as perfumed and flower strewn as a church in France on a holy day. There's more drama in this music than the opera is given credit for, and Pappano elucidates what's there, without pushing it past its limits.The delicacy of the playing let themes, such as those from the "big number",  resurface elusively throughout the opera, sometimes so subtle they can be overpowered by being made too obvious.

The Royal Opera House orchestra deserve more appreciation than they get, so it was good to see them on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Seeing the bare structure of the stage was instructive, too, a reminder of just how much art goes into making the fantasy of opera.

Leila is a part almost tailor-made for Nicole Cabell. She's exquisite, and swathed in sapphire satin creates a character even before she sings. Pretty singing too., but the role, despite its charm doesn't lend itself to great displays of passion. John Osborne's Nadir was assertive and lucidly clear in the true French manner. His aria Je crois entendre encore, was beautifully shaped and balanced, the orchestra poised around it well, so it did feel caché sous les palmiers.
The duet Au fond du temple saint was very well realized by Osborne and Gerald Finley. Finley was by far the biggest name in the ensemble, however good Osborne, Cabell and Raymond Aceto's Nourabad could be. More darkness would work well with Zurga, who is a very troubled man, but Finley's singing is so well modulated that he creates authenticity without apparent effort.

I loved the ENO Pearl Fishers because the staging (Penny Woolcock) really made sense of the plot and its undertones, infinitely more so than Bizet.  That's why it was an artistic triumph, despite the poverty of the singing (with the exception of excellent Quinn Kelsey). This ROH Les Pêcheurs de Perles is a triumph for the music. Surprisingly sensitive orchestral playing, good singing and enough drama in the music to compensate for the lack of visuals.A longer and better version of this will appear soon in Opera Today.

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