sat 07/12/2019

Les Pêcheurs de Perles in concert, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Les Pêcheurs de Perles in concert, Royal Opera House

Les Pêcheurs de Perles in concert, Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano and ensemble vindicate Bizet's score as a gem-studded wonder

Sweet delight indeed to be stroked by Bizet's more intimate touches in an early score which gives you at least some good tunes worthy of Carmen - not just The Duet, of which more anon - as well as anticipating Don José's cor anglais, Micaëla's horns and the gamin piccolos of the world's best-loved opera. Les Pêcheurs de Perles is ideally a Glyndebourne piece; too much of its introspection had to be lost earlier this year in the Coliseum, well conducted though that was by Rory Macdonald, and though Covent Garden may be a halfway house, Pappano knows how to project caressing detail. Nothing was wasted: the tender loving care Bizet lavishes even on 30-second exit music, the springy little dances in the middle of text-conventional choruses, the Opéra Comique bounce even in raging tempests and crowd bluster (precise singing here from the Royal Opera Chorus once the tenors had settled).

Yet none of this would have added up to enough without three classy voices to share the burden of the two times three hit numbers, deliciously compacted into three shortish acts (if I leave high priest Nourabad out of the picture, that's because he hardly makes an impression at all, though Raymond Aceto was fine). The half mentioned earlier was Gerald Finley as Zurga, the fisher king torn between love, friendship and vengeance. He has some lovely bass-baritonal colours in the voice, enough to carry his tender-hearted Act Three reverie, and good French even though his head was too much in the score. What he lacks is the kind of arching phrases which were so moving when ENO presented Hawaiian singer Quinn Kelsey in the role. Clearly Finley wasn't in the best of voice last night, having trouble rising to the pitch at times. And the stentorian leadership is really a thrust too far for his essentially lightish delivery, though not quite as inappropriate as his Iago in concert with the LSO.

At any rate, he blended well in duet, and the celebrated bond of friendship was over in a flash: Bizet's original "Pearl Fishers Duet" culminates not in a thumping reiteration of the big tune, but a Verdian buddy-buddy celebration, "Amitié sainte" (which actually prevents early overkill of Léïla's inspiring leitmotif, delicate in its many later transformations). Tenor John Osborn glided subtly on the top line, but his moment came in what is surely the most soulful of all tenor arias, Don José's Flower Song included, "Je crois entendre encore". Osborn gave us an understated demonstration of pure artistry, breaking up the high phrases intelligently and several times resorting to a very pretty and permissible falsetto.

In terms of the complete package, though - presence, acting, looks and above all an instrument of real individuality - Nicole Cabell was the one who had it all. Measured at first, keeping the voice just a little under wraps, she spun one line of dizzying rapture in the recitative before her exquisite Act Two aria, in effect a duet with the Royal Opera's principal horn, and more poured forth in Léïla's duets with the two men who loved her.

Cabell is down to play good girls like Mozart's Ilia and Pamina, but I wonder whether she might be prepared to make a temporary sacrifice of the upper bloom though not the agility and give us a definitive soprano Carmen. In the meantime, the radiant success of this concert performance should have Pappano looking to similar ventures with Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth, Delibes' Lakmé and any amount of lesser-known Massenet. I wonder if I'm going soft in mid-life, but I'm getting to adore these French operas - though let's draw a line above Gounod, please.

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