Bizet Les Pêcheurs de Perles (original 1863 version)
Julie Fuchs, Cyrille Dubois, Florian Sempey, Luc Bertin-Hugault; Les Cris de Paris; Orchestre National de Lille/Alexandre Bloch
Pentatone PTC 5186 685 (hybrid CD/ SACD) 109:42 mins (2 discs)
The critic of Le Figaro was particularly cutting after the first night of Les Pêcheurs de Perles in 1863: ‘There were neither fishermen in the libretto, nor pearls in the music,’ he wrote. Berlioz, however, was kinder, particularly about Bizet’s music, and he was right. As Alexandre Bloch and the Orchestre National de Lille remind us, this is a magnificent score that blends the exotic, the dramatic and the lyrical. This is also the first-ever recording of the premiere version of the opera, edited and reconstructed by Hugh Macdonald for the publishers Bärenreiter in 2015.
The libretto may still creak – the great duet for tenor and baritone ‘Au fond du temple saint’ comes much too early and the final act is hurriedly melodramatic; but the Act II duet for the priestess Leila and Nadir is masterly. And Cyrille Dubois and Julie Fuchs, who belong to a new generation of French singers, make the most of it. Dubois is distinctly French in the timbre of his voice and his singing style, and if Fuchs tends to spread under pressure she is lyrical when required and her coloratura is formidable. Whether either singer really inhabits their character is another matter. So often that is the problem with concert performances.
If Florian Sempey is a disappointing Zurga with gritty tone and a tendency to bark, the vocal honours really belong to the chorus, Les Cris de Paris. Here’s committed singing that reminds us that Bizet’s story is not just about passion and jealousy but also about a community clinging to the shoreline in search of a perilous and uncertain livelihood. Here are the fishermen and the pearls.