Bizet: The Pearl Fishers

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bizet
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Bizet
WORKS: The Pearl Fishers (in English) – highlights
PERFORMER: Simon Keenlyside, Barry Banks, Rebecca Evans, Alastair Miles; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London PO/Brad Cohen
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 3156

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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 they 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.