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Moules, sauce hollandaise

Gran Teatre del Liceu
05/13/2019 -  & May 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20*, 22, 23, 24, 25, 2019
Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles
Ekaterina Bakanova/Olga Kulchynska* (Leila), John Osborn/Dmitry Korchak* (Nadir), Michael Adams/Borja Quiza* (Zurga), Fenando Rado/Federico de Michelis* (Nourabad)
Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Conxita Garcia (chorus master), Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Yves Abel (conductor)
Lotte de Beer (stage director), Dorike van Genderen (reposition/revival), Marouscha Levy (sets), Jorine van Beek (costumes), Alex Brok (lighting), Finn Ross (videography)

(© Antoni Bofill)

Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Bizet’s seventh opera, written when he was twenty-five, is not nearly as powerful as his final opera, his masterpiece, Carmen. Les Pêcheurs de perles was made relatively famous thanks to the popularity of the tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” and the tenor aria “Je crois entendre encore.” Dramatically, it is highly implausible even for an opera. It involves two childhood friends who swore an oath never to see again the woman they both love. This woman is revealed to be a mysterious veiled priestess sworn to celibacy and who prays for the protection of their fishermen’s village. Such fragile works need be given strong support in their staging, sets and costumes in order to have any chance at success. Unlike Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen, this minor opera cannot afford severe mutilation. Perhaps Dutch stage director Lotte de Beer naively believes the work’s strength makes it indestructible, or perhaps she despises opera lovers to the extent of wanting to play a cruel joke on them. As some are on a quest for beauty, de Beer seems on a quest for ugliness or even vulgarity. The already tenuous plot became impossible in her production: de Beer presents the opera as a “reality show” called “The Pearl Fishers: Death or Pardon,” whose plot involves young people stranded on an exotic island. On the show, a young woman is presented as a priestess sworn to a chastity vow. Because she broke her vow and became involved with a young man on the set, the cretinous public is supposed to vote on whether to forgive them their breach or to condemn them to death. In this case it is not a make-believe execution, but an actual death. Even the most demented opera libretti don’t go to such extremes. With such a concept, the dramatically weak work totally falters. The four singers varied from competent to excellent, but unfortunately they didn’t get inspired and despite respectable singing were not able to move the public. At best, we got a vocally correct rendition of the arias. The duets, demanding interaction, never took off. The singers, dressed in casual modern day clothes and surrounded by plastic palm trees, were not comfortable in their roles.

Written in the heyday of Frances’s colonialism, the work suffers from the period’s prejudices: the natives are cruel and their religion is barbarous. As this was the epoch’s propagandizing vision to justify Western intervention and exploitation, the protagonists are two-dimensional caricatures rather than credible flesh-and-blood characters. Somewhat botched by Bizet’s librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, the natives are made into Hindus and are given mostly Arab-Muslim names, such Nadir, Nourabad and Leila, in the Buddhist island of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). Such confusion was commonplace in the “glorious” days of European empires, and is perhaps forgivable given the superficial interests the librettists, composers and the public had for these exotic locations. An exotic locale was a pretext for exuberant emotions in a luxuriant setting. Less forgivable is present day ignorance. As in many opera productions, the “East” is rarely precise, though the information and images are available by a simple Google search. The dancing girls wore Balinese outfits and headgear, and the guards wore a variant of Northern Indian Mughal-period outfits. Of course, it can be conveniently claimed that this kitch pêle-mêle is not necessarily due to negligence but to the sets being those of a low-budget television production. Passion was sucked out of the Act 2 love duet, the opera’s most passionate moment, by having the soprano on top of the Ikea do-it-yourself Hindu temple while Nadir remained on the ground floor, several minutes after the two had embraced (on the ground floor). Perhaps it was a gauche attempt to emulate the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene.

Some of Lotte de Beer’s ideas would have been effective had this been a serious play, not an opera with an implausible plot to start with. The television audience were portrayed as people in their homes in an apartment block, watching television. Though theatrically effective, it did not work in the context of an exotic opera. Likewise, the television audience descending from their apartments to the stage to burn Zurga on the stake was a brilliant-reversed clin d’œil to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where characters leave the screen and slip into the real world. More successful was the visual stimulus afforded by the videography, showing exotic beaches and jungles in contrast to the hideous television studio sets. Of comic relief was the short film shown between Acts 2 and 3, featuring interviews with the fans of the putative reality show. Most of the fans showed their fanatical devotion to the show as often happens in real life. Yet even a highly stupid public could not get fanatical about such a reality show. Filmed on location in places such as Barcelona’s picturesque market La Boqueria, the 5-minute film was a credible and humorous slice of life. More astonishing were the reasons the public gave for their death verdict of the two lovers.

In sharp contrast to the hideous production, the singing of the soprano and the tenor was first-rate, especially the refined singing of Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak as Nadir. This bel canto singer had absolute ease with the role’s high notes. Moreover, his diction in French was better than that of many native speakers. His rendition of “Au fond du temple saint” was a masterclass in French singing. The difficult French diphthongs posed no problem to the Russian tenor. Since this is supposed to be a television show, there was a stage-sized screen zooming in on his face during the aria. Fortunately, Korchak is not prone to grimaces, as this could have been quite unflattering. Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska was also most accomplished. Her “Me voila seule” was both moving and vocally superlative. Reminiscent of Micaëla’s aria in Carmen “Je vois que rien ne m’épouvante,” this aria can be quite dull if not masterfully sung. In contrast, Spanish baritone Borja Quiza needed serious help with his French diction. Here the stage-sized close-up during his aria, “L’orage s’est calmé... O Nadir,” amplified his considerable deficiencies. It also showed how ill at ease he was singing in French. Words such as “les vents,” “oppressée,” “aveugle” sounded like “les vans,”, “oprezay” and “avegle.” Throughout his role, he sang with a marked staccato. Proper French singing has definite legato, though obviously distinct from Italian legato. It is a pity as Borja Quiza has a lovely timbre and his baritone is especially suited for Mozart and French operas. Another problem was his tendency to sing too loudly. Bass Federico de Michelis, as Nourabad, did a good job as the evil high priest, as is typical in orientalist operas. Having him play the reality show’s pompous host was an ingenious idea (within the limits of this far from ingenious production). He definitely conveyed the character’s sliminess with his lecherous looks at the female dancers and extras and even the leading soprano. Vocally impressive with his deep basso cantante voice, his French diction left a lot to be desired. Since his was a much smaller role, his menacing tone and frantic gestures were sufficient for a convincing portrayal. Canadian Yves Abel conducted the Liceu’s orchestra with gusto and with attention to the needs of the singers. At the Liceu’s foyer, a conversation among disappointed local opera lovers was overheard. One person inelegantly dubbed this production The Turd Fishers. I would not be as cruel, I would simply downgrade this production to The Mussel Fishers, served with a hard-to-digest hollandaise sauce.

Ossama el Naggar



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