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Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera at The Royal Opera House, Monday 4 October 2010.

It is impossible to sit through this concert performance of Bizet’s opera without thinking of the Labour leadership contest. Here are two ‘brothers’ desiring the same prize, both determined that this should not destroy their love for each other, and yet unable to suppress their bitterness and pain. True, the elder may be chosen as the leader here, but it is the younger who walks off with the coveted trophy.

Appropriately enough, the head fisherman, Zurga, is played by the immensely experienced Gerald Finley, and the young Nadir by John Osborn, a tenor making his Royal Opera debut. Finley is on top form, his voice as dark and resonant as ever, his hands outstretched or clasped together by turns. His performance bursts with inner intensity, gazing to the heavens as he contemplates the responsibility placed on him as head fisherman, and his delivery of L’orage s’est calmé is an undoubted highlight of the evening.

Osborn is similarly captivating as Nadir. His tenor voice combines lightness with gravitas, and his upper register and falsetto in Je crois entendre encore are particularly appealing. While, however, the pair’s performance of Au fond du temple saint is beautifully sung, even allowing for the fact that it involves two individual (albeit similar) responses to an event, the duet seems to lack an overarching unity.

Things aren’t helped by the intermittent glances at the score and turning of pages, which are partly a product of the evening’s style. Even concert performances can range from concentrating on just the singing to featuring entrances and exits and full interaction, and this performance does not always know where to pitch itself. Nadir sits on stage from the start so there is little sense when he ‘appears’ of him returning from the forest to be greeted by Zurga. At other times, performers swap places to befit the drama, but it feels clunky to watch them pick up their music and park themselves down in a new spot.

For some reason, this difficulty affects the fishermen more than the other two principals. As Leïla, Nicole Cabell has infinite presence, her rich-blooded voice producing moments of mesmerising depth, but also interacting well with the frequently uplifting music. Making up the quartet, Raymond Aceto is strong and sturdy, both vocally and dramatically, as the high priest of Brahma, Nourabad.

Placed on the stage between the soloists and chorus, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Antonio Pappano, produces a pleasing tone throughout the evening. Demonstrating a sure command of tempi, the resulting sound is sweeping, but the pace never feels forced. The playing creates a strong air of excitement, and the orchestra always seems to know when and what to accentuate.

The chorus is smooth, balanced and suitably powered, although it will always be difficult for a concert performance to penetrate the community of pearl-fishers’ psyche. This is, after all, a group so anxious to protect themselves in their dangerous work that they are urging the slaughter of Nadir and Leïla simply to ensure their own safety.

But criticisms of this Les Pêcheurs are reserved for the ‘staging’ which is never the reason for attending a concert performance in the first place. For the main purpose of anyone’s visit – the singing and the playing – the Royal Opera House’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles is to be highly recommended.

There is a further performance on Thursday 7 October. www.royalopera.org.

- Sam Smith


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