The Royal Opera – Les pêcheurs de perles

Les pêcheurs de perles – Opéra in three acts to a libretto by Eugène Cormon & Michel Carré [Concert performance; sung in French with English surtitles]

Léïla – Nicole Cabell
Nadir – John Osborn
Zurga – Gerald Finley
Nourabad – Raymond Aceto

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 4 October, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Antonio Pappano. ©EMI Classics / Sheila RockIt is strange how an opera such as “Les pêcheurs de perles” (The Pearl Fishers) can seem to be so much in opera-goers’ imaginations and yet at two of the world’s premiere opera houses (the Royal Opera, and the Metropolitan) it has been absent since the 1920s. Well, hot on the heels of English National Opera’s new production, which aired in June 2010 (and it was performed there rather frequently before then), The Royal Opera has attempted to rectify this seeming injustice with this first-of-two concert performances.

The opera itself is something of a mongrel of influences: Wagner and Verdi spring immediately to mind, with the lack of spoken dialogue and an almost continuous musical thread being the outcome. And, some of the orchestral colours maybe influenced Tchaikovsky: a moment towards the end of Act One reminded of the epilogue to Swan Lake. There is not much to evoke Ceylon (Bizet’s original plan had been Mexico, and to meet the tight schedule of the opera’s premiere he borrowed heavily from previous works such as “Ivan IV”), but, whatever the influences or inspiration, the score is packed with material that pleases the ear and keeps one’s attention, and hearing the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under its Music Director give such a loving account of it made this an evening well spent.

Gerald Finley. Photograph: Sim Canetty ClarkeThe soloists’ parts – a soprano (Nicole Cabell), tenor (John Osborn), baritone (Gerald Finley) and bass (Raymond Aceto) – found commanding interpreters, none more so than Finley’s account of Zurga, the head fisherman. His Act One numbers seemed outside this baritone’s comfortable tessitura but as his character becomes more sinister things became smoother. John Osborne’s account of the young fisherman was impressive, more-so given that this was his house debut. What a shame that the beauty he created with his glorious Act One aria (a pine of love for Priestess of Brahma) was destroyed by feckless applause, and, similarly, a quite stunning aria from Finley in Act Three (‘L’orage s’est calmé), where Zurga sings of his agony at having condemned the lovers to death, was wrecked, this time from a premature shout of “bravo”!

The Priestess that both pearl-fishers previously loved, and then renounced so that they could remain friends, found Cabell in coquettish form during Act One, as a song-bird. Later, as she cursed Zurga – operatic curses mean the world, and more – her characterisation found pathos, and the lovers’ duet before their planned execution, was almost jolly in its acceptance of fate (they do escape, though, with Zurga’s belated help). The man who wants the death of Léïla and Nadir more than anyone is Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma: as sung by Aceto, his devilish, black bass resonated malevolence.

Some may balk at only being offered a concert performance, but Bizet painted well with his score, and the dramatic urgency offered by the story meant that the ideas of the libretto came across more than adequately.

  • Further performance on 7 October at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera House
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 30 October

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