Haroun Paul Nilon
Splendiano Mark Stone
Djamileh Patricia Bardon
Slave Trader Keith Mills
Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North
Director Christopher Alden
Designer Johan Engels
Costumes Sue Willmington
Lighting Adam Silverman
Choreography Claire Glaskin
Eight Little Greats No.2: Djamileh
Tuesday, June 22, 2004 Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
Reviewed by Alexander Campbell
Bizets early short opera Djamileh is rarely seen on stage, and infrequently heard in concert performance too, so this was a welcome opportunity to assess it as a stage work. The short overture, full of engaging tunes and some of Bizets exotic orchestral colouring promises much.
The story is set in the exotic East thereby allowing Bizet to compose a score with sultry Arabian dances and use his orchestral palette to depict a world alien but fascinating to 19th-century Paris. It revolves around Haroun, who selects women from his harem for one month before rejecting them and moving on to a new partner. His current concubine, Djamileh, has fallen madly in love with him, as indeed Harouns servant Splendiano has likewise fallen in love with her, and she determines to win Haroun for herself. She persuades Splendiano to disguise her and re-present her as the new girl, on the understanding that if Haroun rejects her then she will give herself to Splendiano. He, knowing Harouns track record, thinks this is a win-win situation and complies. Initially intrigued by the shy new girl, Haroun penetrates Djamilehs disguise but ultimately acknowledges that he loves her. And they all live happily ever after.
Well, they might have done in a conventional staging but this is a Christopher Alden production that updates the setting to modern times, with Haroun being procured women by Splendiano and a slave-trader, and having all his dealings with them filmed by his servant manufacturing voyeuristic sex-videos perhaps. When Harouns friends arrive to take him to the gaming tables, shortly after his end-of-month rejection of Djamileh, in this production they settle down en masse to ogle over one of his films whilst the dance music is played, although the director makes it clear that the content of the films is shocking even to some of his friends.
Splendiano, whose own interest in Djamileh borders on the obsessional, films the final reconciliation of the lovers but in this version Haroun strangles Djamileh an operatic snuff movie is played out. It was obviously meant to be provocative, but it seemed a bit passé, the concept not adding much to the proceedings.
Musically the opera is slight and the score reveals Bizet working at less than full throttle, perhaps justifying the musics neglect, although some of Djamilehs music foreshadows Carmen. Splendianos arioso, where he looks forward to a future with Djamileh, is probably the best-known extract; Mark Stone sang it attractively and reflectively in a nice French-baritonal style. Paul Nilon sang Haroun. Always an intelligent singer and an excellent stage actor he depicted Harouns restlessness and ennui both physically and vocally, and then sang ringingly as his (true?) feelings were awakened. The vocally alluring and attractive Patricia Bardon sang the title role, although one could sense perhaps that her rich and lush, almost contralto tones were almost too fruity for the music. On the only available recording Djamileh is sung by Lucia Popp, whose piquant tones were probably too soprano-like for the part! This is being really fussy Bardon gave a very complete, committed and enjoyable performance.
David Parry, who had led Pagliacci earlier in the evening, conducted, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying the colours of the score, particularly in the dances where the woodwind contribution stood out. Perhaps the interpretation lacked an essential Gallic lightness of touch, but the chance to hear the score and see a staging, if a flawed one, was welcome.