ROBERT HUGILL congratulates the Chelsea Opera Group on its performance of 'The Pearl Fishers'
Chelsea Opera Group concerts have two particular pleasures; the light which they shed on forgotten or neglected areas of the operatic repertoire and the opportunity to hear young singers at the beginning of their careers. Their concert on Saturday 29 November 2003 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall amply fulfilled both of these pleasures; it enabled us to hear a new edition of Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles sung by an outstanding young cast.
Although hardly a forgotten area of the repertoire, Bizet's opera has, like Carmen, suffered because of his early death. The original full score to the opera has disappeared and Bizet's own published vocal score has been largely ignored. The traditional edition is full of omissions and additions by other hands and Bizet's own original has lacked a good modern edition. This lack has now been rectified by Brad Cohen. His edition of the opera was staged in 2002 by Opera Holland Park with reduced orchestration. So this concert was London's first opportunity to hear Bizet's own version with the full orchestra.
The changes do not make this opera any more of a masterpiece; Bizet's music is still linked to a profoundly unsatisfactory libretto. But the famous duet is given in a version that is more operatically subtle rather than the familiar concert showpiece. The opera's ending is far less melodramatic and includes new music that, it could be argued, is not strong enough for its purpose. But this was a wonderful opportunity to hear what Bizet actually wrote and to rediscover the work's melodic fecundity, the reason why Les Pecheurs de Perles remains still in the operatic repertoire.
Tenor, Colin Lee, played the hero Nadir; the pearl fisher who falls in love with a temple priestess. Having shown his mettle singing Iopas and Helenus in the recent ENO performances of The Trojans, Lee displayed a fine lyric tenor with a focussed sound which was very apt in this repertoire. His ability to float a lovely long line was well displayed in Nadir's solos. As Nadir's friend Zurga, the leader of the pearl fishers, baritone Damian Thantrey displayed a firm commanding tone along with a rich, baritone which made his solo, 'L'orage s'est calme' profoundly moving. Lee and Thantrey combined to give us a performance of the duet 'Au fond du temple saint' notable for its flexible tempo and smooth phrasing.
As the object of their desire, the temple priestess Leila, Elizabeth Donovan sang with a bright, forward soprano and she had a nice way with the role's coloratura as well as displaying an attractive trill. In her cavatina 'Me voila seule dans la nuit' she spun the line beautifully.
Darren Jeffrey gave a strong performance in the small, but important role of Nourabad, the high priest of Brahama.
The orchestra, under Felix Krieger (a conductor at the German State Opera, Berlin) responded magnificently to Krieger's beautifully flexible view of the work. And as it flowed, the orchestra relished the many felicities of orchestration. Bizet gives the chorus a number of fine opportunities with plenty of local colour and the Chelsea Opera Group Chorus attacked them with enthusiasm.
The Chelsea Opera Group are to be congratulated in giving such a fine, idiomatic performance of this lovely score and for giving us the opportunity to hear what Bizet actually wrote.