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.