Estonia Bizet, Les pêcheurs de perles: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the St. Petersburg Chamber Opera / Maksim Valkov (conductor). Estonian National Opera, Tallinn 5.6.2017. (GF)
Stage Director – Juri Aleksandrov
Sets and Costumes – Vjatseslav Okunev
Lighting Designer – Irina Vtornikova
Video-art – Daniil Bakalin, Mihhail Usinin
Choreographer – Nadezda Kalinina
Nadir – Denis Zakirov
Leïla, – Jevgenia Kravtsenko
Zurga, – Aleksei Pasijev
Nourabad – Anton Morozov
This production was premiered at the St. Petersburg Chamber Opera on 19 December 2015, and it was the first time the company turned to a work by Georges Bizet. Carmen is everywhere, but this somewhat lesser known opera, written twelve years before his masterpiece by a composer in his mid-twenties, also had much to offer. Most people know the tenor-baritone duet from the first act, possibly through the legendary recording by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill, and probably also the tenor’s romance from the second act, once famously recorded by Beniamino Gigli. But there is a great deal of wonderful music besides these hits. The soprano has several fine arias, there are further duets and solos and the chorus is kept very busy. A few hours in the company of this work, whether in the opera house or at home in one’s favourite chair, are hours well spent.
The plot takes place on Ceylon – today Sri Lanka – in unspecified times long ago. The pearl fishers are preparing for the fishing season. They have elected Zurga as their leader. He recognises Nadir, a friend he has not seen since the time when they vowed to relinquish their love to the same woman. In the famous duet they promise each other eternal friendship. A veiled priestess is brought in. Her task is to reconcile the wrath of Brahma by singing while the pearl fishers dive. She turns out to be Leïla, the woman Zurga and Nadir were in love with. When she believes she is alone she takes off the veil and starts singing. Nadir hears her and recognises her voice. He declares his love to her and Leïla requites. The high priest finds them together and Zurga, furious with jealousy, sentences them to death. Leïla asks Zurga to pass on a necklace to her mother. Zurga recognises the necklace as the gift that once was given to the girl who saved his life when he was a child. To repay his guilt he decides to help the lovers. He sets fire to the village, and in the turmoil Leïla and Nadir manage to escape.
Bizet catches both the drama and the exotic setting in his music. Exoticism was in vogue at the time this opera was composed. Leo Délibes’s Lakmé, composed some decades later, also takes place in India and the title role is also that of a priestess. Juri Aleksandrov and Vjateslav Okunev convey the atmosphere wonderfully and create a beautiful fairy tale setting with the ocean omnipresent through video projections. At times one feels that the action is taking place at sea. The costumes are timeless and, just as in Die Fledermaus presented the day before, the soloists are excellent actors and the ballet contributes to breathing life into the performance.
As in Die Fledermaus, the singing is top-notch. Aleksei Pasijev is a great Zurga who sports a marvellously dark and beautiful baritone and his dramatic expressivity is stunning. Denis Zakirov has exactly the right voice for Nadir: mellifluous, nuanced and his romance is sung in an exquisite half-voice that can challenge even legendary interpreters like Gigli, Simoneau or Gedda. Jevgenia Kravtsenko’s sweet and flexible lyric soprano is also cut out for the role of Leïla, while Anton Morozov’s rather light bass-voice possibly lacks the hefty sound one expects from the high priest’s formidable appearance. It is good singing but somewhat anonymous.
Chorus and orchestra are excellent and my only disappointment is that there are no surtitles. Though the singers’ French enunciation is more than acceptable one still hears no more than fragments of text and I presume that not too many in the audience are familiar with Les pêcheurs de perles.
But this is marginal criticism. The whole production is a great success on a world-class level. My only regret is that I was unable to attend the third production during this guest appearance (Rigoletto) but I do hope I will encounter The St. Petersburg Chamber Opera again someday.