Cher Public

The upper depths

perles-amazonPity poor Georges Bizet. After winning the Prix de Rome at 19 years old he worked on, in part or completed, 10 operas. The last of them, Carmen, he was convinced was a failure. He succumbed to a heart attack three months after its premiere at 37. His widow, having no concept of the musical legacy she had inherited, gave away or lost many of her husband’s autographed manuscripts.

But what of those other efforts of Bizet? Other than La jolie fille de Perth, which is almost akin to spotting a unicorn, only his Les pêcheurs de perles has managed to be fished from the sea of obscurity and plated on the rare occasion. The Met made a big deal about presenting it for the first time in a hundred years recently but failed to mention that 1916 only saw three performances with the renowned Caruso, Giuseppe de Luca and Frieda Hempel. 

It’s a curate’s egg, as the expression goes. Some of the music is truly divine: the showcase entrance for the soprano, the Act I finale with mountains of chorus, and the justly immortal tenor/baritone duet. But then a plot so feeble that in the recounting it threatens to vaporize into the air like perfume. Suffice to say it’s a very bad idea to get sweet on the same girl as your best bud and double that if she happens to wear a veil for work.

We have our friends at Unitel to thank for the fact that this opera now has a second DVD in the catalogue. This performance is actually from October 2012 and was perhaps taken off the shelf due to the popularity of the Met broadcasts. The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is a pearl itself and this presentation proffers some of the best that company has to offer. You’re still reminded frequently that you’re in Naples, not Paris.

What it is with conductors and their aversion to the hairbrush? Gabrielle Ferro emerges into the pit looking like he just came straight from the bottom of the Mariana Trench for the engagement. All I can say is that it’s a good thing that the musicians have their music to hold their attention. The man can conduct however and although he’s spent the better part of his career as a Rossini specialist he’s very adept with Bizet’s tricky rhythms and Franco-tinged orientalisms.

If his Italian orchestra lacks the requisite transparency for the French style they certainly make up for it in feeling. Also, no one could ever accuse him of letting the big tunes go for nothing. He double clutches so hard on the first appearance of “Oh Dieu Brahma” I was afraid the man playing the crash cymbals was going to do himself an injury.

A smple set of sparkly sand dunes covers the stage courtesy of set designer Giorgio Richelli, with the occasional piece of decaying statuary scattered about for variation at each act change.

We get off to a dangerously wobbly start in the opening chorus as the ensemble seems unsure of not only their music but also what they should be doing. Bizet wrote a lot of voix-mixte for the tenor section in this opera and the Neapolitans, being the good Italian tenors they are, really aren’t comfortable on anything other than forte towards the top of the staff.

So for quite a bit of their parts they sound troublingly weak. There’s also some pretty choreography from the corpo di ballo randomly executed on curtain up that may have needed a few more run-throughs. What’s the French word for scattershot?

I was not familiar with the Uruguayan baritone Dario Solari but as Zurga, the leader of the fisherman, he gave the most consistent pleasure both vocally and dramatically all evening. A good thing too, since the staging makes his character the centerpiece of the story. He has a bright, forward sound with a good buzz and a nearly effortless legato line.

His easy projection of voice and character make him a model in this cast. Once he’s got his stage legs under him he displayed a strong tenor-tinged top that was doubly surprising. A voice to watch.

Our hapless hero Nadir (and never was an operatic character more aptly named) is played by Operalia prizewinner Dmitry Korchak. It’s a tricky role that calls on the full technical resources of that special breed of tenor who has an easy, and hopefully sweet, top. He sadly pushes his full lyric voice out of focus on his entrance.

Hints of clumsiness of phrasing and driving the voice a hard above the staff sadly mar the big duet with the baritone (“Au fond du temple saint)” but not completely. Perhaps he’s trying too hard to prove himself.

Once he manages to get his sea legs under him, he offers a solid but reedy rendering of his big aria. Yet even there he throws himself at the penultimate high note on a wobbly forte, decrescendos with all the security of a pubescent teen, and finishes in, not so pure, head voice.

The faulty mechanics of this were obviously less apparent to those in the theatre than on the home screen because during the semi-rapturous applause that follows someone called out for a “bis” twice. I don’t think there’s a tenor alive who would take that bait.

But first the object of all this torment and affection enters (amongst a phalanx of minions) in the form of Leila, vestal virgin, embodied by Patrizia Ciofi. She is draped in one of the most magnificent wraps I’ve ever seen, yet renders little but straight-tone to the gods, which is unseemly for a woman of her years. After her brief interview with Zurga she returns to croon the “Oh Dieu Brahma!” with a modicum of sinewy meticulousness and a touch of vinegar.

By the time we get to the Act II duet both tenor and soprano are firing on all cylinders. Nice to have a little magic going on! Sadly, the blue “moonlight” is not her friend, and neither is her Act I costume, sans veil, with silent movie face paint which makes her resemble Little Eva in the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ ballet from The King and I. For the final two acts she changes into something more flattering.

The Act II finale is justly famous for being wildly impassioned and difficult for even the best musicians and conductors to count as evidenced by a few recordings. Ferro is in his element and keeps everyone on point. Since they’re all good and warmed up it turns into the highlight of the evening. Still the corps de ballet dancers carry out some controlled silliness and the ladies of the chorus throw themselves to the ground en masse not once but twice in abject, and well rehearsed, terror.

Act III is more contemplative and doesn’t find Bizet nearly as inspired as the previous two. Ciofi and Solari do give a beautifully impassioned reading of their duet with some very Gallic word-pointing on the part of our soprano that is most impressive. Still, since it’s filled with musical reminiscences from just an hour ago, it has its longueurs. For me that only works in operas like Don Carlos where the music from the love duet comes back after five hours.

Director Fabio Sparvoli can’t be credited with much more than keeping people from not bumping into each other in what is a very traditional staging. In the second act the tenor and soprano take turns climbing up to the top of the giant stone head on stage to sing their showcase moments—hardly inventive—and the chorus behaves like a flock of geese with a hive mind.

The costumes of Alessandra Torella show a real eye for both color and texture for the men and women. The narrow range of silhouettes, though, suggests there’s only one sari seamstress in town.

The standard Choudens edition of the score is used in spite of some not so recent discoveries regarding the transposition and ending of the tenor/baritone duet. We also get the spurious trio towards the close of the last act, not written by Bizet, that the Met didn’t even detain us with.

Picture and sound are crisp with only the miking of the chorus a little on the muddy side. Sound options are standard PCM and DTS 5.1 which is certainly preferred. Subtitles in six languages will allow you to sing along in Japanese to your heart’s content.




  • Porgy Amor

    Wonderful review, Patrick M. I have never been able to discuss this opera without using the word “dinky,” and its status as The Other Bizet Opera (That One Has A Chance of Hearing) puts a burden on it under which it can bend. But I did enjoy the Met production earlier in the year, and I’ve seen another locally live, a painless experience, and I’ll even like a recording once in a while. I imagine this DVD is better than the other existing one, on the Dynamic label.

    That said, while I really like La Ciofi sometimes, I wondered if this were the best use of her, especially in 2012. She is a smart, stylish performer who means what she sings, and certainly her Violetta in the Carsen/Maazel is one of the best we have had filmed (circa 2004, ideal for that production), but Leila is more of a “Sing pretty for the people” assignment. So the review falls in line with my expectations.

    • There’s this exact production with almost the exact cast except Yoncheva is Leila. It was on youtube. I wonder why they did not release the Yoncheva video but the Ciofi.


      Dear Porgy, I will have to look up that Traviata now because I have always been curious. La Ciofi is certainly an admirable technician but she seemed maybe off her best game for this. Also I kept trying not to use the phrase ‘too long in the tooth’. Many thanks for your kind words.

      • That Carsen Traviata is well worth it. And Ciofi is very special in it, if too lean in tone to be an ideal Violetta. The production also uses an earlier version of the opera which I didn’t know existed. The writing for soprano in the second act is more high-lying and florid, so it suits Ciofi’s voice better than the standard version of the opera we know.

        • Porgy Amor

          Yes, it’s the world-premiere version (1853), before Verdi’s revisions. This is another point in the Fenice DVD’s favor; it’s not so much that this first version of the score is superior, but it’s interesting to hear it as it sounded when it was given to the world, and some differences are not-inconsiderable. But even when they are minor changes to scoring, that score is so ear-familiar that they stand out.

          Beyond that, Carsen’s production is one of his best, and Ciofi very intense. Not the first thing we should consider, but If you want a really frail Violetta, she’s your gal. You could open mail on those collarbones. Saccà and Dima are not my favorites in the male roles, but they get it done.

          There’s something in the Flora party scene that I’ll never forget, and it’s just one of those times when music, direction, and the singer’s performance come together and the magic happens. When Alfredo throws the money at Violetta, typically there is the Victorian faint on her part as the chorus gives him what-for. This production is updated (disco ball and such), and Carsen has her act more like a worldly woman of that time. She gathers up every shred of dignity she can muster to be poised, to turn and walk away from him. But as Ciofi plays it, you can tell she’s dying. Figuratively and literally. Heartbreaking.

          • stevey

            Hi everybody! Here’s the original finale from act 2, from the performance that you were speaking of. I absolutely love it. In fact, after hearing this, I haven’t ever really been able to listen to the more standard, ‘revised’ version the same way again (which probably isn’t a good thing, but there ya go!). Am interested to hear what you all think:

            Now, back to my lurking! :-)

            (BTW, has anybody heard from Camille at all???)

            • Porgy Amor

              Stevey, I know what you mean. I feel similarly about the Paris version of the big ending to the third act of Otello, although in that case the unusual one is the later-composed one. I’m not saying it’s really better than the standard choice, but there are qualities in it I miss now in a typical performance. This is from Vick’s excellent production, conducted by Muti, but you can hear this on any Muti Otello, I believe.


  • Yes, a great review indeed. Thank you, Patrick.

  • grimoaldo2

    Very entertaining review of a lovely opera, thank you! I have been very fond of Ciofi;s singing in the past, but she now has, as you say, “a touch of vinegar” in the voice, and this performance is from four years ago. She is going to be Marguerite de Valois in the new Berlin Huguenots in November, which to me is not a prospect that fills with delight,