Friday 28 June 2013

Les Pecheurs de Perles at Opera Holland Park

Soula Parassidis as Leila in Les Pecheurs de Perles at Opera Holland Park. Picture Fritz Curzon, 2013
Soula Parassidis as Leila in Les Pecheurs de Perles
at Opera Holland Park. Picture Fritz Curzon
The problem with Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles is that the last act just doesn't conclude with any degree of dramatic credibility. Despite producing some very striking, and memorable, music earlier on in the opera Bizet does not seem to have been able to transcend the poor quality of the libretto. As a composer he was very dependent on the dramaturgy of the libretto being right, deriving inspiration from the dramatic structure. Though known for his final opera, Carmen, in fact Bizet wrote some eight operas (not all were finished), of extremely variable quality. He was a composer who couldn't rise above the quality of his librettos. So, frankly, you wonder whether opera companies would revive Les Pecheurs de Perles if it didn't have the cachet of being by Bizet.  That said, it does have two stunningly memorable numbers (the famous tenor/baritone duet and the tenor's solo in act one). These two are, like most of Carmen, ear worms which stay with you long after the performance.

When Brad Cohen's edition of the opera came out, making available the score of Bizet's original version of the opera, there was hope that we might be able to retrieve some more dramatic credibility. Cohen's edition was performed at Opera Holland Park's last production of Les Pecheurs de Perles as well as being performed by Chelsea Opera Group. After the opera's premiere in 1863 it was not performed again until after Bizet's death when various hands, including Benjamin Godard, tinkered with it and re-worked it. The big disappointment is that the urtext version is no more dramatically viable in the final scene than the revised version. For the new production at Opera Holland Park (seen 27 June 2013) conductor Matthew Waldren made his own selection from the two versions, including the revised version of the famous duet and, at the end, the rather stiff and unconvincing trio for Leila, Nadir and Zurga. Though I can understand why he might want to tinker, frankly I feel that there is no excuse for it now we know what Bizet's intentions were.

That said, Oliver Platt's production paid the work the compliment of taking it perfectly seriously. Platt and his designer Colin Richmond set the opera in the mythical Ceylon required by the libretto. Richmond's set was simple, but effective; just a vivid turquoise blue floor and a large saffron sheet which, attached to ropes hanging down, variously formed a backdrop and a tent. For the final scene, the sheet was replaced by lamps on the ends of the ropes. The results were simple and effective. Richmond and Platt were clearly unembarrassed by the 17th century facade of Holland Park House and made no attempt at disguising it.

The chorus, all dressed in colourful and varied costumes, were supplemented by three dancers (Archana Ballal, Kali Chandrasegaram and Kharita Kaur) who helped enliven and articulate the choruses with choreography by Katharine Ryan. No-one tried to pretend it was authentic, we were definitely in stage Ceylon, but neither was it trying to send the opera up or feel embarrassed about it. The whole production had a simple dignity and dramatic directness about it which was entirely admirable. Platt seems to have read the libretto (including the stage directions), listened to the music and given us a version of that. Entirely admirable. Platt and Waldren both worked on last year's Christine Collins Young Artists performance at Opera Holland Park and it was interesting to see them in action on their first main stage production.

For the two lead male roles, Nadir and Zurga, the writing has the sort of high tessitura which was common in French operas of the period but which has rather, in our post-Verdi world, fallen out of favour. Both tenor and baritone are expected to be able to float up high, effortlessly and seamlessly. Jung Soo Yun (Nadir) and Grant Doyle (Zurga) were both rather more vigorously robust in the roles than was ideal, but both brought a bracing amount of vocal and dramatic vividness to their performances.

Jung Soo Yun has a nice open, Italianate style of production which will see him in good stead in the mainstream Verdi and Puccini repertoires I suspect. But he has also the ability to produced a finely grained head voice at the top end of his register, which enabled him to float the high lying melody of his act one aria Je crois entendre encore, though at the moment this register was not quite seamlessly matched to the rest of his voice so that we could hear the gear changes (but I'd rather hear gear changes than have the aria sung with the sort of coarse tone which arises if you try and sing it live Verdi). Jung Soo Yun has both the title roles in Massenet's Werther and Gounod's Faust on his schedule, so is clearly in sympathy with French 19th century opera and is definitely a tenor to watch. He makes his debut at the Wigmore Hall on 15 July 2013.

Grant Doyle was dramatically credible as Zurga, singing robustly but with great sympathy for the music. I would have liked a rather suaver sense of line, but he has a very sympathetic and direct stage personality which made the role work. His solo and scene with Soula Parassidis's Leila at the start of act three was one of the dramatic highlights of the opera. Whilst the musical material is no where near as memorable as that from earlier in the opera, Doyle's sheer energy and vividness made things work on stage. He developed a good relationship with Jung Soo Yun and the two sang the famous duet with suitable robust finesse. They had the advantage of the longer, non-canonical but traditional, version of the duet which allows the big tune its reprise which Bizet denied it.

Soula Parassidis is a Greek-Canadian soprano who trained in Vancouver; she was principal soprano with Oper Leipzig from 2009 to 2012. She is no mere canary, and her repertoire encompasses some serious lyric roles like Pamina and Fiordiligi as well as Gretel and Zerlina. She has a bright, flexible voice with an interesting element of steel to it, but also a nicely integrated upper extension and a fine trill. She brought real personality to the role and whilst her fioriture wasn't always ideally clean, she was vivid and highly personable. You wished that Bizet had managed some more memorable material for her scene in act two with Nadir, but she and Jung Soo Yun made a fine couple.

The role of Nourabad, the village elder, is relatively small but Keel Watson was physically impressive in the role, making it seem far more than it was and singing his solo passages with a nice suaveness.

The general level of sung French was a bit patchy, when the characters were stressed then the singers' French diction suffered also. This was, perhaps, an indication of a more general problem which was a sense of the correct style. (If you want to hear the opera sung with style, and with the right sort of voices then try the venerable Pierrette Alarie and Leopold Simoneau recording available on Decca, see below). But generally the performance succeeded thanks to the vigour, vividness and sheer energy of the young performers.

The chorus matched the soloists in enthusiasm and vigour. Platt's production relied quite heavily on them providing local colour and interest (moving scenery if you like), and this they did admirably. There was no attempt, thankfully, to try to make them look indigenous Celonese, this was a village with a highly varied mix of genes. On a cool, windy night in Holland Park, no-one seemed phased by the weather and all convinced us that we were on the shore of an island, partly in the Indian Ocean but not too far from metropolitan Paris either.

Conductor Matthew Waldren was a highly sympathetic accompanist. He didn't drag things out and allow the big tunes to become self indulgent, but he allowed the singers great flexibility which counted a lot towards our enjoyment. Hearing a fine singer shaping a line and bringing small rubatos to phrases is one of life's pleasures in this sort of music. Waldren was aided and abetted by the City of London Sinfonia, who brought great style to their performance. I have to admit that there were moments of faulty ensemble between pit and stage, notably when the chorus were very physically active, but these were only momentary.

Les Pecheurs de Perles is one of those operas which critics love to chunter about. But here, Waldren and Platt paid it the compliment of taking the work entirely seriously. They and their cast performed it with a winning directness which was rightly popular with the audience.

Update: One of my correspondents has suggested that the version used may have owed as much to costs as anything else, with the rights to a modern edition being more expensive than the traditional, out of copyright version. A shame, but a reflection of our modern times.

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