- Les pêcheurs de perles
Les pêcheurs de perles is just the appropriate opera to be revived by the Teatro La Fenice, Venice's ornate monument with a phoenixlike history of rising from its ashes. This performance actually occurred at Venice's Teatro Malibran, before the full reopening of La Fenice in November 2004. Unlike the old Fenice, Bizet's 1863 opera wasn't burned to ashes at its first performance, but the undeservedly negative press reaction caused its absence from the Paris repertory until 1893. [End Page 749] Bizet, who died in 1875, was thus denied the eventual glory of both Carmen and the far less significant though admirable Les pêcheurs de perles.
Only the vocal score survived from 1863, and it was the source for several worthy attempts to realize Bizet's original orchestral intentions. Considering the various changes evident in the earliest recordings, it appears that the opera's rather inconclusive stage action leaves room for different dramatizations of its finale. But Bizet's music, fortunately, covers them all, uniformly resulting in the demise of Zurga, one of opera's noble villains. One important return to Bizet's 1863 thoughts, while doubtless authentic, leaves me rather cold. The show-stopping act 1 duet between Nadir and Zurga, "Au fond du temple saint," has usually ended with the repeat of the main theme. In this recording we hear an expanded version of the duet, which makes the whole scene a tad too long and far less effective (this is, of course, a personal opinion).
This Venice performance has much in its favor. The late Marcello Viotti keeps everything under firm control. He treats Bizet's gentle orientalism just right, supplying the needed atmosphere without wallowing in it. The cast is headed by Annick Massis, a soprano in full command of her showy arias, portraying a Leïla who faces her predicament with vigor and courage. Mme Massis's top range is phenomenal, capable of a full-force interpolated high D in the third act. Tenor Yasu Nakajima sings his familiar arias with sweetness of tone and in the original keys, but his singing lacks the special magic of such predecessors as Simoneau, Kraus, and Vanzo. Luca Grassi is a vigorous and convincing Zurga. There have been more potent Nourabads in previous casts than Luigi De Donato, but he is more than adequate. Some of the best recorded versions of this opera seem to have vanished from the catalogue. In their absence, Dynamic has given us an honorable alternative.
George Jellinek has been connected with radio station WQXR in New York as music director (1968–1984). On his retirement, he continued as emeritus to 2006 and produced a variety of special projects. He created and hosted the nationally syndicated and award-winning The Vocal Scene (1969–2004). He is the author of Callas, Portrait of a Prima Donna (1960) and History Through the Opera Glass (1994). Both books are still in print on the Dover and Limelight imprints. His Memoirs will be published by McFarland in late 2006.