Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles is not an opera that usually adapts well when staged by smaller opera companies. Topically it is in the same camp as Halévy’s Jaguarita L’Indienne for the primacy of dramatic impetus given to the female role but also for what are termed its “literary” qualities: a substantial focus on historical or geographical exploration coupled with a more complex treatment of love and relationships, both platonic and romantic. In a sense then, Holland Park is an ideal enviornment for Pearl Fishers. Bizet’s second-most popular opera is stylistically classed as opéra lyrique, a genre that was in several respects a response to the stale pretentiousness of the Opéra that, after the revolutions of 1848, became increasingly untenable in the public eye and ear. Sophistication of dramatic themes embodied in characters willing to evolve emotionally in an “ambitious or exotic framework” provided a rebuttal to opéras like Robert le diable, which so crucially rely on a conceptual blend of Italian melodrama and the French sensitivity to word-setting. Gounod’s Faust is probably the best example of this division in French operatic taste in no small way due to its librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who together wrote Meyerbeer’s Le Pardon de Ploërmel, Ambrose Thomas’s Hamlet along with a host of others. Notably though, Carré wrote Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles.
This rehearsal of “great French operas” doesn’t fully recognize the importance of their contents, which for many operaphiles include some of the greatest music in the repertory (despite these operas’ comfortable assimilation of Wagnerian stylistic trends, a vogue for which was of course was alive and well in France in the 1860s). Joking aside, without Faust--and Gounod’s awareness and respect for the German titan--the operas by the composers above (including Bizet) would perhaps never have been realized with such range of chromatic harmony, confidence in rhythmic exploration, and, most notably, an increased narrative role for the orchestra. This situating of the orchestra as both character and narrator depended on the newfound importance of “literary” dramatic themes and allowed it to vacillate between portraying the ambiguity of a character’s inner psychology and the overt action of the story.
Understanding these subtle differences between grand opéra and opera lyrique is not simply pedantry at its finest; it is paramount to realizing that the demands--musical, dramatic, and commercial--placed on a small opera company such as Opera Holland Park are not dissimilar from those placed on larger companies who produce grand opéra, which make the distinction between triumph and failure ever more important. With considerably fewer resources than a larger opera company, OHP continually impresses in with its productions of French and Italian opera, and the latest new production of Les Pêcheurs de perles, directed by Oliver Platt and conducted by Matthew Waldren, is no exception.
With the efficient and clever designs of Colin Richmond and the subtle lighting effects of Mark Jonathan, the stage is continuously transformed, suggesting locales as diverse as an exotic seaside paradise to a flame-filled inferno. The stage’s main fixture was an orange (silk?) curtain, which was raised and molded into various shapes to create different ambiences as required by the action and music. It could even be taken as a metaphor for the conflict between personal desire and sacred duty experienced by Léïla: an ever-shifting emotional landscape that is finally destroyed by flames as she makes her ultimate choice.
Undoubtedly, Soula Parassidis, the young coloratura who played Léïla, contributed greatly to this interpretation. She looks the part of a young priestess but one wonders if the role, especially its more dramatic (read: high tessitura) moments, is a bit much for her. There were a few pitch problems but on the whole Parassidis sang with verve and commitment; her acting was also quite good, especially in her Act III duet (“Je frémis”) with Grant Doyle’s Zurga. The tension could’ve been cut with a knife.
Doyle was a commanding yet sensitive Zurga. He shaped his phrases with a baritone voice that at times verged on being too covered or too dark, but the quiet pianissimos he achieved (save one in the first act that didn’t quite get there)--notably in his final “Rêves d’amour, adieu”--certainly caught me with a lump in my throat. He was resoundingly effective and emotionally compelling. On the more robust side of male voices, Keel Watson was an impressive Nourabad; not only did he sing the role flawlessly, but his physical presence and the idiosyncratic attributes he manifested were a fantastic touch of theatre.
The Nadir of Jung Soo Yun was right on par with the other singers. He sang with an admirable amount of finesse, though one hazards to say that it was too often coupled with restraint at times. Although his character was certainly more nuanced that other Nadirs I’ve seen, he could’ve let his voice go a bit more often because it’s exhilarating when he does. Live a bit more on the wild side, Mr. Yun; not only would it make for decidedly more passionate performances, but the audience would love it.
After reading the first two paragraphs of this review, it would be disastrously bad form to not mention the evocative playing of the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Matthew Waldren. The young conductor brought out the subtleties of Bizet’s score with aptitude seemingly beyond his years: tempi were well chosen--especially for that oh-so-famous duet/theme that runs rampant throughout--and he led the chorus through their difficult moments with style. There were one or two moments where the strings did not seem quite together as demanded but the effect was minimal. The chorus was indeed very good; entrances and exits were this time together and the extreme writing for the tenors was tossed off with apparent little difficulty
For all the hallmarks that position the opera as lyrique, Bizet’s work is mainly concerned with emotive dramatic recollection in a distant time and place. This is the orchestra’s role in the opera: to transport the listener to a world of sensuality and sumptuousness created again only by the composer’s later Carmen. The famous duet theme that signifies at one time both Nadir and Zurga’s friendship and the mesmerizing influence of Léïla over them will become your reality for a short while, and as the exotic music of Bizet’s score washes over you, take note of the peacock in the gardens adjacent, crooning at the setting sun.
Photos: Alastair Muir