As a preview of the second production of the Washington National Opera's fall season, this DVD arrived, the only commercially available DVD of Bizet's first-composed but second best-known opera, Les Pêcheurs de Perles. In this live recording from Teatro La Fenice, Marcello Viotti leads a performance of the unabridged edition of the opera's original version, premiered on September 30, 1863, at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris (Editions Choudens, Paris). Pier Luigi Pizzi's sets are a colorful and slightly odd evocation of old Ceylon (although the libretto does not specify a time setting, there is at least one mention of rifles in the text), with the foreground taken up by a gently arced floor, seemingly of reddish plexiglass, and a golden Hindu temple gleaming in the distance.
Bizet, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, A. Massis, L. Grassi, Teatro La Fenice, M. Viotti
(released March 29, 2005)
Dynamic DVD 33459
The libretto by Eugène Cormon (né Pierre-Étienne Piestre) and Michel Carré (in French or English) is set in a fishing village in Ceylon, where the people have just proclaimed Zurga as their leader. He and his old friend, Nadir, had a falling out when both fell in love with Léïla, a priestess they saw in the temple. They vow to revive their friendship just as Léïla, veiled, arrives on the scene, summoned to the village by the people. She returns Nadir's love, in violation of her vows, which is discovered in the temple by the high priest, Nourabad. Zurga, who must judge the case, wants to show clemency to his friend, until he discovers that the priestess is none other than Léïla. As the inevitable death sentence is about to be carried out, Zurga causes a diversion by lighting the encampment on fire and allows the lovers to escape.
The singing of the two male leads is strong and well-matched, if tenor Yasu Nakajima (Nadir) and baritone Luca Grassi (Zurga) are hardly two peas in a pod physically. The danger of the opera for the average listener is that not much of the first act has gone by when the opera's only well-known piece, the duet for those two male leads ("Au fond du temple saint"), is heard. In this production, their memory of seeing Léïla in the temple is played out by long-legged prima ballerina Letizia Giuliani, spinning while suspended on a velvet cord. The music returns many times in different forms throughout the opera, always recalling the initial coup de foudre in the temple. (The duet, with a sacred text, was later sung at Bizet's funeral.) Annick Massis is a clarion and clear-voiced Léïla, so important in her big Act I aria ("O dieu Brahma"), for example, set fairly high in the voice with transparent orchestration (its words, "Esprits de l'air, esprits de l'onde" seem to have been echoed by Massenet in Esclarmonde).
The best recording of the opera is now available from EMI Classics, at a bargain price from Amazon (click the image). The performers here also used the unabridged version of the opera, and it is a generally attractive version. Its main appeal is in the radiant sweetness of Barbara Hendricks' Léïla (although there is an awkward splice, right at the top of Léïla's wordless arpeggio upward, in the final measures of the first act -- track 13, 5:10). As reported earlier this year, Hendricks is still singing, and you can buy her recordings directly from her label. In her heyday (she will celebrate her 60th birthday this November), the Arkansas-born Hendricks (she has since become a Swedish citizen) was one of my favorite sopranos of the shimmering, pure variety (not the sheer power kind). She is also one of the few opera singers to have led a completely viable second career as a jazz singer.
Bizet, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, B. Hendricks, J. Aler, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, M. Plasson
(released April 10, 1990)
EMI Classics CDCB 7 49837 2
Her Nadir is another favorite, for certain kinds of repertory (this opera included), tenor John Aler. The timbre, light and fluty, is a nice match for Hendricks, and Aler's rendition of "Je crois entendre encore," Nadir's Act I romance, is a guileless singing of that simple folk-like tune. Aler's voice does not stand up as well in the Act I duet or the other numbers against other voices. (Jan Neckers has some nice words for the Alfredo Kraus recording of the opera, which I have not heard.) The liner notes to this recording also provide a clear explanation of the differences between Bizet's original score, rediscovered by Michel Poupet (also recorded here), and the 1893 version, for what was only the second staging of the opera, after Bizet's death.
The 1893 changes include cutting the conclusion of the famous Act I duet ("Amitié sainte, unis nos âmes fraternelles"), which was replaced by a partial repeat of the famous first section of music ("Oui, c'est elle"), with an adaptation of some of the second part's text. As that later version is believed to be based on changes Bizet himself later made (and because it concludes with the music that all audiences know and love), it is often performed, even when the performance uses the 1863 version. This recording's final track is a recording of the duet's original version, which is definitely worth having and not only from a completist's point of view. If anything should be cut it is that dippy "Tra-la-la-la" chorus that opens the second act.
To prepare for Saturday night's opening of the Washington National Opera production, you could hear British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes give a free lecture on Friday night (September 19, 6:45 pm). She will speak about her set and costume designs for the production, at the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW). No tickets are required.