Thursday 2 August 2018

Suppleness and elegance: a new Les Pêcheurs de Perles from an all-French team

Les Pêcheurs de Perles - Pentatone
Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles; Julie Fuchs, Cyrille Dubois, Florian Sempey, L'orchestra nationale de Lille, Alexandre Bloch; Pentatone
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 16 2018 Star rating: (★★★★★) 5.0
An all-French-speaking cast and a new edition make a superb case for Bizet's early opera

Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles has not really had much luck. Given 18 performances at the Theatre Lyrique in 1863 (ten years before Carmen), it then languished until Bizet's death when the success of Carmen meant his publishers wanted to capitalise on his earlier operas. Les Pêcheurs de Perles was altered and adjusted, and it is that version what had currency for most of the 20th century.

This new live recording of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles from Pentone features Hugh MacDonald's reconstruction of Bizet's original version (published by Bärenreiter and you can read more about the edition at their on-line magazine), performed by Alexandre Bloch and the Orchestre Nationale de Lille with Julie Fuchs (Leila), Cyrille Dubois (Nadir), Florian Sempey (Zurga) and Les Cris de Paris.

Bizet's autograph score for Les Pêcheurs de Perles is privately owned and has never been published, so any edition of the original has to reconstruct it based on Bizet's piano reduction and the conductor's short score. But the opera's problems do not stop here. In performance, the piece relies on a certain type of elegant French singing (worlds away from the standard post-Verismo style) with three principals at ease with the way the music expects a certain fluent suppleness in the upper voice, usually allied to a rather narrow bore emission style (think more Nicolai Gedda than Luciano Pavarotti).

Up till now, to get a really ideal version on disc (irrespective of edition) you have to go back to 1953 with the recording by the French-Canadian husband and wife team Pierrette Alarie and Léopold Simoneau conducted by Jean Fournet. So it is with great delight (and not a little surprise) that I can wholeheartedly recommend this new recording. It oozes the requisite elegance and style, and all three principals bring a wonderful suppleness to their singing. And it helps, too, that all three are Francophone.

Julie Fuchs displays a rich, lyric voice with a glorious ease and facility in the coloratura allied to a delightful ability to charm. Cyrille Dubois impresses mightily for the suppleness and beauty of his tone. He has a nice ease in the upper register so his aria 'Je crois encore' has a wonderful sense of line and control with a honeyed mezza-voce for the top note. Florian Sempeys Zurga is suitably commanding but this is allied to a flexible line and again a fluency in the upper reaches.
The combination of Dubois and Sempey in the original version of the famous duet 'Au fond du temple saint' makes the familiar pot-boiler subtle and stylish. Luc Bertin-Hugault gives strong support as Nourabad.

Les Cris de Paris, director Geoffroy Jourdain, provides firmly stylish support in the substantial choral moments. Alexandre Bloch and the Orchestre National de Lille play the piece as if they have mid-19th-century French opera style running through their bones, and again I return to the qualities of suppleness and elegance. This is a live recording, but you can hardly tell, the immediacy of the performance captures just the right qualities needed for the opera, you hardly regret the lack of a studio recording.

The performance and the edition do not make Les Pêcheurs de Perles a lost masterwork, the libretto is too faulty for that and Bizet's music frankly runs out of steam. The two biggest numbers are in Act One and you feel that if Bizet had been able to revise it, Act Three would be very different.

Why perform  Les Pêcheurs de Perles?  This disc recognises that there is more to the piece than 'Je crois encore' and 'Au fond du temple saint'. Bizet's score pressages much that would impress in his masterworks and this performance gives us Les Pêcheurs de Perles on its own terms, making it the interesting and seductive failure that it is, albeit with a highly significant score, and the performers do so in the most stylish way imaginable.

George Bizet (1838-1875) - Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863 version)
Leila - Julie Fuchs (soprano)
Nadir - Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
Zurga - Florian Sempey (baritone)
Nourabad - Luc Bertin-Hugault
L'Orchestre Nationale de Lille
Alexandre Bloch
Recorded live at the Nouveau Siecle de Lille, 9-11 May 2017
Available from Amazon.

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  • Enterprising rarity: Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate at Grimeborn (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Spinto showcase: Angel of Fire from Katerina Mina (★★★½) - CD review
  • Bernstein's problem child: a lively & engaging Candide at West Green House (★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Lucretia through a newcomer’s eyes and ears: Britten at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Prom 17: Parry, Holst & Vaughan Williams (★★★★) - concert review
  • Approaching Winterreise: Angelika Kirchschlager on performing Schubert's great song cycle  - interview
  • Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park (★★★★½) - opera review
  • A disturbing journey: Schubert's Winterreise from Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Byron's Grand Tour: Alison Pitt & Gavin Roberts at the St Marylebone Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • It’s Opera Giacomo, but not as we know it - Turandot at Torre del Lago (★★★) - Opera review
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