Bizet’s name, ever since the early (though by no means instant) success of his last opera and major bestseller Carmen, has become synonymous with the idea of catchy tunes and exotic soundworlds. That’s the composer who is with us most of the time. You needn’t be surprised, then, if some of his lesser-known operatic works are also, whenever possible, read along the same line – works falling into that unique species of “failed pieces” so often trapping scholars and critics alike into depressing arguments about compositional deficiencies or precursory experiments to later, grander musical achievements. Les pêcheurs de perles, first performed to good audience but modest critical success at Paris’ Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, in many ways comes in handy to support Bizet’s popular Orientalist image.

Soula Parassidis © Fritz Curzon
Soula Parassidis
© Fritz Curzon

Based on a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré set in a fishing village in ancient Ceylon, it tells the story of a priestess torn between love and her vows; two men who are both friends and love rivals; and a community concerned about the possible fallout of the god Brahma’s fury over the propitiating virgin breaking her religious oath. The plot as developed in Cormon and Carré’s libretto may not be very credible, yet when dressed with music it provides a host of situations in which to display some of the fondest harmonic and orchestral subtleties – all of which are nicely brought to the fore in the current Opera Holland Park production by the City of London Sinfonia under the young baton of Matthew Waldren.

It may strike one, then, that despite the compelling exotic subject and Bizet’s numerous hints of shimmering Oriental music, the opera was in its time mostly discussed for its (then) alarming mixture of varied musical styles. Bizet’s score is indeed a melting pot of 19th-century French, German and Italian idioms: pages fraught with rare harmonic colours inspired by non-Western soundscapes alternate with bel canto fiorituras, as well as with passages where an unexpected rhythmic verve suddenly makes you hear treasures of early Verdi. I like, in this sense, to think of such stylistic amalgam as the “exotic” in the opera: as the feature that may still lend Bizet’s work today (and have lent it in 1863) a compelling sense of “otherness” – of diversity, of peculiarity.

This production, directed by Oliver Platt, certainly does stay close to (without overemphasising) Bizet’s Oriental subject. It does so through a few visual devices, such as the very fine, “authentic”, Hindu-like costumes of the chorus and dancers, and the depiction of the villagers caught up in local everyday activities (pearl-diving, garland-weaving and praying to Brahma). However, what it lacks is dramatic tension and stage inventiveness. Not that the opera itself, with its somewhat dragging music and problems at keeping up dramatic rhythm after the climaxes of Act II, poses an easy challenge to any director. But the very streamlined sets of Platt’s production – consisting almost exclusively of a large orange sheet, relentlessly manoeuvred to take on different functions and shapes – did not quite help. Dances, candles and colourful choral scenes aside, there were few gripping moments.

The standard of singing on the first night was good overall, although everybody grew in stature only from Act II. Grant Doyle, who recovered well from some early troubles, delivered a fine performance as Zurga, perhaps only lacking something in vocal heft. Tenor Jung Soo Yun (Nadir) was a convincing vocal and dramatic presence, who sang smoothly throughout. The two produced some poignant moments, fusing their voices with that of the orchestra in their Act I duet, “Au fond du temple saint” – the best-known piece in the opera. Soprano Soula Parassidis (Léȉla) dispatched her many passages of Italianate coloraturas with confidence and precision, providing some eerie moments of pure vocal beauty. By any measure, though, the best performance came from the orchestra. It was there, in the pit, that Bizet’s eclectic score tried hardest to come out fully in all its various, intermingling, contrasting facets, supplying in musical cunning what the production at times lacked in scenic and dramatic spin.