Eight Little Greats – No.2: Djamileh

Djamileh [Sung in French]

Haroun – Paul Nilon
Splendiano – Mark Stone
Djamileh – Patricia Bardon
Slave Trader – Keith Mills

Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North
David Parry

Director – Christopher Alden
Designer – Johan Engels
Costumes – Sue Willmington
Lighting – Adam Silverman
Choreography – Claire Glaskin

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 June, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Bizet’s 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 Bizet’s 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 Haroun’s 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 Haroun’s track record, thinks this is a win-win situation and complies. Initially intrigued by the shy new girl, Haroun penetrates Djamileh’s 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 Haroun’s 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 music’s neglect, although some of Djamileh’s music foreshadows Carmen. Splendiano’s 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 Haroun’s 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.

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