VIDEO PODCAST: John Dante Prevedini leads a discussion about Youth Involvement in Classical Music - this specially extended illustrated feature includes contributions from Christopher Morley, Gerald Fenech, Halida Dinova, Patricia Spencer and Roderic Dunnett.
The Pearl Fishers, Bizet's second most popular opera, is a typical slice of mid-nineteenth-century hokum: a love-triangle, and its attendant love-versus-duty dilemmas, in an exotic setting - ancient Ceylon, now Sri Lanka - with the long arm of coincidence to resolve matters. But Bizet manages to rise above his material and draw us in. (The librettists, Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon, are said to have commented that if they'd known what a fine composer he was, they'd have tried a bit harder!) Having mounted a fully-staged production at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, the company's base, Opera North took a concert version on the road, as is usual for its summer run - Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 1 July 2023.
The score suffered any amount of interference after Bizet's death, but recent editions have tried to get close to what he actually wrote, in the absence of his autograph orchestral score. Opera North used the edition prepared by Hugh Macdonald, published in 2015.
As the two fishermen at the centre of the plot, Nico Darmanin and Quirijn de Lang were completely convincing as close friends whose relationship seemed threatened by their love for the same woman, which they thought they'd put behind them, but is revived when she walks back into their lives. Darmanin's bright but unforced tenor brought an apt Gallic tone to the role of Nadir, well partnered by the baritonal warmth of de Lang's Zurga. In the celebrated Act I duet you believed they really were reliving an important memory, not just reeling off the opera's big hit number. (We got the altered ending, with its reprise of 'Oui, c'est elle ...', rather than what Bizet originally wrote.) De Lang also exuded authority when chosen as the fisherman's leader.
Sophia Theodorides's guileless Leïla wavered convincingly between serenity and agitation, combining resolve and uncertainty when being sworn in as the priestess charged with praying for the success of the fishermen's dangerous expedition. She floated her own prayer to the god Brahma with perfect control, negotiating the trills and swoops with total agility. Later, de Lang projected both Zurga's outrage at what he saw as Nadir's betrayal of their joint vow, and his remorse at condemning him and Leïla to death, and as she pleaded for Nadir's life, Theodorides drew on a telling combination of dignity, defiance and serenity. Simon Grange, standing in for the indisposed James Cresswell, brought gravitas to the thanklessly two-dimensional role of the high priest, Nourabad.
Once again, the Opera North Chorus showed itself a force to be reckoned with, incisive in the opening number, powerful in their Act I hymn to Brahma. With Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting, the Opera North Orchestra brought energy to the dance rhythms in the opening chorus, a splendidly light touch to the Entr'acte setting the scene for the start of Act II, and plenty of bite to the storm at the end of Act II.
Without the set and video projections of the staged version, director Matthew Eberhardt still ensured there was enough movement on stage to elucidate the action. Costume choices seemed odd, though. While Leïla's gown and Nourabad's dark suit could be taken as emblematic of their priestly roles, it was puzzling to see Nadir and Jurga dressed for a posh night out rather than their work.
That aside, while The Pearl Fishers may not be a masterpiece (in spite of the claim in the programme), time and again, Bizet shows exactly what he is capable of and, as usual, Opera North did its composer proud.
Copyright © 7 July 2023