Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles is hardly a masterpiece, but its many beautiful moments are supremely beautiful – and when a cast that makes them justice is found, one is ready to overlook the bad libretto and the formulaic moments. When one reads commented discographies of this opera, every reviewer concludes that there is not a perfect recording of this opera because a perfectly matched trio of singers have never been gathered in a single performance. This alone would make the Deutsche Oper’s feat of presenting a superb cast even more commendable, especially for a performance concocted to replace Donizetti’s La Favorite with Elina Garanca, cancelled because of the mezzo’s pregnancy. The fact that this was a concert performance also helped to drain a bit the opera of its kitsch – and conductor Guillermo García Calvo deserves praise for bringing every musician on stage to the core of the drama. One can see when an orchestra and a chorus are really engaged – and so they were this evening. I wonder how often this score has received such rich and inspired orchestral playing as this evening. The Deutsche Oper chorus too sang it with animation and sense of theatre. I have seen this opera only once live in Rio (and Luciano Botelho was a very commendable Nadir back then) and therefore really know it from Pierre Dervaux’s EMI recording with an irreplaceable Nicolai Gedda. Without being really “scientific” about what I am going to say, I found García Calvo a stylish and elegant conductor. I am not really aware of textual differences between editions, but I have the impression that the shortened last act has been used – the whole affair involving the chain given by Zurga to the young Leïla is only hinted at and the opera ends almost immediately after Leïla and Nadir’s exit.
Patrizia Ciofi sang Leïla’s music with such freshness, emotional commitment and good taste that I am more than ready to forgive her the occasional flapping top note. It must be added that I have probably never heard any other soprano who has dealt with the awkward florid lines as coherently and expressively as she did this evening. I wonder if someone can actually sing the role of Nadir these days better than Joseph Calleja – his old-style plangent tenor fits French repertoire to perfection and he avoids any hint of Italianateness and has very decent French pronunciation. He tackles high mezza voce without any strain or difficulty, while naturally pouring a quite voluminous voice for a lyric tenor. Gedda or Vanzo had sung more overwhelmingly romantic Je crois entendre encore in the good old days, but Calleja’s account is almost unbelievably clean and easy (including the optional higher ending). The torrents of applause were so vehement that the tenor agreed to sing it again – et nous l’avons donc entendu encore! The second time more dulcet than the first – it is no wonder that chorus, orchestra and the other soloists joined the audience in cheering this invaluable Maltese tenor. To make things better, Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis was an outstanding Zurga, singing with rich, ductile tone in his warm, pleasant voice.