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Bizet, George: Pearl Fishers (Highlights) CD CHANDOS 2008

Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers

Highlights (CD)


The baritone has never sounded finer…” musicalcriticism.com

Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Barry Banks (tenor)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Brad Cohen (conductor)
Released: 1 September 2008
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Chandos Opera in English – CHAN3156


From the Chandos website

Bizet’s exotic opera The Pearl Fishers is now released on the Chandos Opera in English label. Although not as well-known as Bizet’s Carmen, The Pearl Fishers contains a wealth of attractive music, including the well-known duet ‘Au fond du Temple saint’, one of the UK’s ‘favourite tunes’. There is surely no better way of discovering the jewels of this romantic work than listening to the superb voices of Rebecca Evans, Barry Banks, Simon Keenlyside, and Alastair Miles.

A leading interpreter of the bel-canto repertoire, internationally renowned for his conducting of operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the Australian Brad Cohen here makes his debut on Chandos. He first came to public attention when, a year after winning the 1994 Leeds Conductor’s Competition, he conducted the world premiere of Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face. Since that promising beginning he has conducted a wide-ranging repertoire at English National Opera, Opera Australia and Opera North, to name but a few. This recording is the first to use Cohen’s own edition of The Pearl Fishers. Cohen was able to secure the original conductor’s score from 1863 and has created a new version, published by Peters Edition, that is arguably much closer to Bizet’s intentions.

The soprano Rebecca Evans takes the role of Leila. Her previous appearances on OiE include the role of Gretel in the Grammy-Award-winning Hansel and Gretel. ‘It was Rebecca Evans’s Gretel, who took the honours. Spinning out radiant lines of delicious purity, she made it hard to see how the role could be sung better’, wrote The Times.

The baritone Simon Keenlyside, who takes the role of Zurga, has previously appeared on Chandos’ The Magic Flute. In September he will appear in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House. Both Barry Banks and Alastair Miles have recorded discs of arias for Chandos and here take the roles of Nadir and Nourabad, respectively.



What the critics say

Dominic McHugh, http://www.musicalcriticism.com/, 23 August 2008

Rating: Four out of Five stars
Probably forever condemned to live in the shadow of its better-known sister Carmen, The Pearl Fishers is nevertheless a work of considerable inspiration and one which is certainly worthy of the loving treatment given to it by Chandos in this new release.

As Richard Langham Smith points out in his excellent liner note, the piece belongs to the Zeitgeist that inspired Massenet’s Thaïs, Delibes’ Lakmé, and Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila: exotic operas strongly flavoured by the atmosphere of the Orient.

Yet the brilliance of Bizet’s score is the way that he uses the Otherness of the story – and the Ceylon setting – for background colour, rather than being ruled by it. At heart, this is the story of a simple love triangle, with a kind of Camelot-type twist: two best friends (Zurga and Nadir) love the same woman (Leïla) and both agree to renounce their love for her rather than let it come in the way of their friendship. But when Leïla and Nadir are reunited their love cannot be ignored; Zurga discovers them together and orders their execution. However, it transpires that many years earlier Leïla had saved Zurga’s life when he was being pursued, so at the last minute Zurga creates a diversion and allows Leïla and Nadir to go free.

Put like that, it’s clear that the story is about human relationships and emotions rather than life in an exotic community. Nevertheless, the fact that the opera is set on an island in the Indian Ocean whose inhabitants make a living by diving for pearls, and that Leïla is the high priestess of Brahma, means that it lends itself to many of the mysterious flavours with which Bizet also coloured the score of Carmen. There are some weak spots where both music and libretto sound slightly prosaic, especially when rendered in English as it is here. The prime instance of this for me is the brief chorus in the opening scene, No. 1b, when the fishermen sing, ‘The man we want to be our master / and we will choose to take command, / Zurga, dear friend, Zurga, dear friend, is you!’, to which Zurga replies, ‘Who, me?’.

This is all a bit too jaunty and silly for my taste, but most of the extracts on the CD (which has a generous running time of 79 minutes) feature music that is truly stirring. The Prelude to Act I is hauntingly evocative, while in addition to well-known numbers such as the Nadir-Zurga duet and Nadir’s beautifully orchestrated romance ‘Again her voice will haunt me’, Leïla’s coloratura aria from Act I and cavatina from Act II show the range of Bizet’s invention. Her duet with Nadir from the same act is also superb, but for me the stand-out number is the Leïla-Zurga duet from Act III, whose sense of drama and purpose is every bit the equal of the great duets from Carmen. The composer uses a series of interconnecting movements that allows him to contrast different parts of the text with vastly different moments of music; it’s by far the most sophisticated thing the score has to offer.

The big selling point of this new recording is its use of a new critical edition by Brad Cohen, who is also the conductor of the project (and can be seen in the current BBC2 series Maestro). The Pearl Fishers was unsuccessful in Bizet’s lifetime and after its eighteen performances in 1863 (when it was premiered) it was not staged again until after the composer died. It was published by Choudens in the 1880s, but the opera was tampered with to a surprising extent: even the famous Nadir-Zurga duet was modified, with the harp and flute theme being added to the end where Bizet intended something quite different. Both versions of the duet are given on the CD, but I wish Cohen had stuck to his guns and just recorded the original version; since we’re only given highlights of the opera, wouldn’t it have been better to record an entirely different number? However, it’s good to hear the posthumous trio ‘Sacred light of being’ – attributed to Benjamin Godard – in which Leïla sings of her love for both Zurga and Nadir.

Chandos is lucky in having secured a superb cast for the recording, with three principals who previously appeared together in the same label’s Magic Flute to great effect. Rebecca Evans is making a rare venture into slightly heavier Romantic-period territory by singing the role of Leïla, but it suits her full tone and ardent delivery to perfection. Her cavatina ‘I am alone here in the night’ is breathtaking in its control, as is the difficult fioritura in her aria ‘Brahma the god’, and she is a sympathetic colleague in the duets. The finest of these, as mentioned above, is the ten-minute encounter with Zurga in Act III, where the pairing with Simon Keenlyside is ideal. The baritone has never sounded finer, adding a gravitas that befits the head fisherman to the voice; combined with the virility and passion he always brings to his performances, this makes Zurga one of his most attractive interpretations. The trio is completed by Barry Banks, whose beefy tone and high expressivity suggest that, like Evans, an expansion into slightly heavier repertoire might prove successful. His rendition of Nadir’s romance (No 4b, ‘Again her voice will haunt me’) is an example of how even studio recordings can have the emotion and atmosphere of a live opera performance.

Alastair Miles makes a brief but notable appearance as Nourabad, the high priest, and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir once more demonstrates its prowess in operatic repertoire. Brad Cohen is fired up on the podium and draws incisive playing from the London Philharmonic.

For my own part, I’d rather have heard this ultra-French piece sung in the original language, and it would be wonderful to have a complete recording. Nevertheless, Chandos deserves high praise for committing something slightly unusual to disc, and as ever the support of the Sir Peter Moores Foundation of such a worthwhile project is commendable.

Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 7 September 2008

Rating: Four out of five stars
The popularity of the tenor/baritone Temple duet in English-speaking countries has brought Bizet’s early opera far more exposure there than in the rest of the world. Brad Cohen opts for Bizet’s original intentions in the main body of the disc, but repeats the famous duet in its “standard” inauthentic version, made by the publisher Choudens, with a reprise of the opening verse. While Barry Banks and Simon Keenlyside don’t challenge Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill – the iconic interpreters on disc – in purely vocal terms, their sense of style is more idiomatic and it would be hard to better them in a vernacular performance. The star, however, is Rebecca Evans’s Leila, exquisitely beautiful of tone, immaculate technically and getting a lot of the words across. This deserves to fly off the shelves and out of the shopping websites.

Die Welt, 16 September 2008

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Recordings of operas in the language of the respective country have actually become as uncommon as they are old-fashioned nowadays. But in still EU doubting Britain the Peter Moores Foundation gives money (53 times already) so that English opera singers can go into the studio for English listeners. This is a double pity in the case of George Bizet’s dreamy Indian fairy tale about the “Pearl Fishers”: There are only few recordings of this work; this one under Brad Cohen is abridged and how much would we have liked to hear Barry Banks and Simon Keenlyside conjure “Au fond du temple saint” in thirds during the most famous male duet of operatic history. Now it has become “Then from the holy shrine”. But also beautiful. (bru)

Christopher Cook, BBC Music Magazine, September 2008

Performance: 3 stars
Recording: 3 stars
How curious that Bizet’s “oriental” opera rarely seems as exotic as Carmen which is set in Europe’s back garden. Spanish gypsies seem to have set this composer’s blood singing more dramatically than a Celanese temple priestess. Yet The Pearl Fishers is as well made musically as any Bizet score and “Au fond du temple saint” has long been a favourite in the recording studio.

Barry Banks and Simon Keenlyside, singing the aria in English as “Then from the holy shrine”, do Bizet proud. The voices meld through the big tune, producing a heartfelt hymn to friendship. And Brad Cohen, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, almost makes you believe it’s the first time you’ve heard the celebrated melody for harp and flute solo that introduces the duet.

This is an opera crammed with delectable tunes and magnificent duets, although served up as highlights the do rather resemble a box of chocolates robbed of the hard centres. Nevertheless, Banks and Rebecca Evans as the priestess Leïla make the most of their seductive Act II number “Leïla, Leïla! Even if Evans doesn’t quite have that silvery tone the role demands. And when Leïla begs Zurga to spare his rival’s life Keenlyside makes “I would speak but I cannot” into a genuine feast. There’s a hard centre here all right.

Warwick Thompson, Classic FM Magazine, November 2008

Rating: Four out of Five stars
Producing a studio recording of an opera is such an enormous financial undertaking that Chandos’s decision to record only highlights of The Pearl Fishers is understandable. Understandable – but still a shame, for with a cast like this you long for the whole ride. Keenlyside is authoritative as the tormented Zurga and Banks is wonderfully passionate as his rival in love. Evans is the object of their love and even if she lacks a certain Gallic sensuousness, her voice is heavenly. Conductor Brad Cohen is better at the dramatic climaxes than the languid love scenes – but that said, he still creates a great punch.

Warren Keith Wright, Opera, December 2008

Swiftly composed as an opera-comique, with recitative run up to replace dialogue just before the September 1863 premiere, Les Pecheurs de perles has a messy textual history. Ignoring the deceased Bizet’s published vocal score, Choudens, amid other’ improvements’ ,over-milked the fIute-and-harp hit tune in ‘Au fond du temple saint’ ,and edified the finale into a gladsome trio, ‘0 lumiere sainte’, hymning three-way love. Lacking an autograph, Brad Cohen’s edition uses the first run’s six-stave reduction to re-orchestrate missing portions; the codversions are provided as bonus tracks.

Richard Langham Smith’s essay vividly guides us through this outpost of French operatic colonizing. Though Ceylon provides fresher exotica than the period favourite, Turkey, no Eastern materials are appropriated by Bizet. Whereas Norma and La vestale feature a priestess who violates vows for love, Pearl Fishers adds two friends who swear off her by swearing mutual fealty. This disc’s overview cuts local colour, obligatory dancing and religious ritual to focus on that turbulent triangle. The parted friends Nadir and Zurga (now the fisherfolk ‘s chief and judge) reunite, spat, kiss and make up several times; but the pledge-breakers Nadir and Leïla are true lovers delighted to die together, with jealous Zurga, pivotal protagonist and sore loser, the last to know.

One drawback to translated opera is that, with some librettos, distant languages lend enchantment to the view. Do we want to know exactly what’s being so beautifully sung? Yet a translation must be faithful, not an improvement upon the original; and no French is given here for comparison. When Zurga rejoices that Nadir has returned’ After so many days, so many weeks and months’ (what, no years?), who padded the line? Most distracting is the recurring imperative ‘Come on!’, which can indicate ‘Hurry up!’, ‘Get serious!’, or ‘I double-doubledare you!’. But David Parry’s Englishing sings well, the main desiderata.

The three leads pair off splendidly, exhibiting rapt dramatic interplay. Rebecca Evans’s agile soprano has metal in it which prevents conventional ‘beauty of tone’; but she is plangent then riveting, as in Leïla’s defiance of Zurga’s deathorders: ‘Take your revenge! You monster! Laugh! Zurga, I curse your name, curse your soul!’. Their ten-minute confrontation, when she pleads for Nadir’s life, is the highlight of these highlights, exemplifying Bizet’s scenebuilding mastery. Barry Banks comes on a bit bright at first, but his Nadir contrasts well with Simon Keenlyside’s tempestuous, heart-torn Zurga: their fraught friendship totally convinces. Alastair Miles exudes the magisterial utterance one wants in a Brahmin priest. Cohen and the London Philharmonic lead us into a sound-picture that reveals depth upon depth of ear-catching scenepainting. At 79 minutes, this disc gives you the pearls in Bizet’s oyster.

David Shengold, Opera News, January  2009 , vol 73 , no.7

Chandos’s generous (seventy-nine minutes) disc of highlights from Bizet’s second most popular opera, starring four British singers known at major American companies, is good enough to make one wish they had recorded the whole piece — indeed, good enough to make one wish the whole piece had been recorded in the language in which Bizet set it. But that would negate the quixotic purposes of the Peter Moores Foundation, which has funded a long, worthy (if variable) series of works performed in English translation. This topic provokes unending debate, with valid arguments on either side. David Parry’s rendering emerges singable despite a few clunker rhymes and purple patches such as Nadir’s “Remorse has made me giddy!” Chandos’s two starry leading men make the words remarkably clear; the chorus, though sonorous, is not so exemplary in this regard.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles has a complex textual history and — for such a popular, appealing opera — a rather unhappy history on recordings, with no outstanding version. Brad Cohen, the very adept conductor here, uses an edition reconstructed from the 1863 original; what we hear of it sounds plausible enough as to orchestral color, and the LPO performs well. But the disc also includes as “bonus tracks” two of the opera’s best-known numbers in the forms most often encountered after posthumous tinkerings, including the Choudens score that has become standard. So in the case of the beloved Nadir–Zurga duet — a brilliant inspiration that has become a hoary chestnut of opera galas — we hear not only the version Bizet wrote, with a conventional if pleasant stretta development, but the familiar one reprising the catchy “Oui, c’est elle, c’est la déesse” (here “Yes, a goddess, truly a goddess”) section. In recent years other conductors have abandoned Benjamin Godard’s trio adaptation of the concluding “O lumière sainte” (here “Sacred light of being”) in favor of Bizet’s original, dramatically more plausible duet form. Here, one can compare them.

American audiences have mainly heard Barry Banks in bel canto roles stressing bravura and stratospheric high notes. It’s heartening to hear that he can summon up Nadir’s long lyric lines with fine dynamic shading, excellently clear diction and consistently attractive tone, if not the honeyed floatiness of a Léopold Simoneau or Alain Vanzo. The romance gets (notably well) sung as written, with no concluding high C.

Leïla, though not considered a standard “prima donna” role, presents considerable challenges. Few exponents on studio recordings have emerged even creditably. Mattiwilda Dobbs and Marthe Angelici both fall pleasantly on the ear, but the best synthesis of tonal beauty and the technique to handle both the lyric and coloratura demands comes from Adriana Maliponte (opposite Alfredo Kraus in 1970, on Bongiovanni CD). Chandos offers Rebecca Evans, a pleasant lyric with some nice tonal shine, but her florid work, apart from admirably handled trills, can get very patchy, and the high notes often emerge either squeezed and thin or hard-edged. When not under pressure, Evans sings with sensitivity.

Of the three major roles, the least difficult to cast, Zurga, has also fared indifferently on recordings. But in Simon Keenlyside, Cohen has one of the great baritones of our day essaying an aptly middleweight role. His smoothly vocalized but impassioned portrayal, rich in dynamic and interpretive nuance, stands with his finest competitors, Robert Massard and Gino Quilico. As Nourabad, Alastair Miles, the solid all-purpose bass of many British recordings, has almost nothing to do here.

Patrick O’Connor, Gramophone, November 2008

The Pearl Fishers belongs to that select group of operas, not that often performed, from which there is nevertheless one number known to everyone. Here, of course, it is the tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint”, which comes near the beginning of the action (in David Parry’s translation this becomes “Then from the holy shrine”). As conductor Brad Cohen writes in his note, the theme it introduces is so over-used that by the end of the evening many ears will be “well and truly tired of it”. As Cohen suggests, Bizet’s original version of the duet is more effective: this does not end with a reiteration of the big tune but with a vigorous and rather old-fashioned cabaletta. Just for good measure, both versions are here, the posthumously arranged, better known one added in an appendix. This means the disc ends with the famous tune, rather than one of the several different finales that exist.

The harder English consonants deprive some of the big moments of their mysterious charm. Barry Banks sings “Zurga when we two are old and grey”, which teeters on the edge of parody, so it comes as a relief once he and Simon Keenlyside get going on their big tune. Rebecca Evans makes rather demure Leïla, and sings sweetly “Comme autrefois”, or “I am alone in the night”. Another intriguing item in the appendix is a trio, attributed to Benjamin Godard, that offers yet another variation on the A-loves-B, B-loves-C situation. Good sound; the LPO plays all the famous melodies effectively.

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