Oct 7, 2008

Loc's opening performance of Les Pêcheurs

Les Pêcheurs de Perles Georges Bizet Nadir - Eric Cutler Zurga - Nathan Gunn Leïla - Nicole Cabell Nourabad - Christian van Horn John Mauceri cond. Lyric Opera of Chicago October 6, 2008 WFMT radio broadcast next performances: October 10th, 13th, 22nd, 25th, November 1st, 4th In short: N.B. This review being based on an audio broadcast does not take into account the stage presence of the cast. Weaknesses of this production: Nathan Gunn, John Mauceri, the orchestra and chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Highlight: Eric Cutler
Leïla and Nadir, Act II Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
French diction First of all, let me state my disappointment over the musical execution of Bizet's masterpiece. I know this is the US and nobody cares about the French diction but I do. A lot. In that department, the chorus (mainly the female elements) and Nathan Gunn should invest in some desperately needed French lessons. I don't know what language they think they're singing, but I can assure them it has absolutely nothing to do with French. Obviously, this is not an easy language to speak, especially for Americans, because of the strange sounds they're not accustomed to (and Eric Cutler is not very good at that either), but the main thing when singing in French is to understand the musicality of the language. Some may say such a thing doesn't exist but the truth is, it does, even if it's not obvious. Nathan Gunn has no clue about that. Words are dissolved in one another and really, his diction sounds like he's chewing several marshmallows while singing. As a result, his Zurga lacks leadership (a crucial element to the role), charisma and passion. The orchestra & John Mauceri's conduction The orchestra had some issues as well - double basses in the opening scene (especially "chassez tous ces méchants!"), violins in "voici les deux coupables!" (Act II), orchestra as a whole in the opening chorus of Act II and in the bars before Leïla's aria "Me voilà seule dans la nuit" (a true nightmare). The conduction of John Mauceri lacked sharpness and was overall very uneven. The first chorus "Dansez" was interesting, but things became too heavy after that. A bit of staccato would have be appreciated in Zurga's aria "Amis, interrompez vos danses et vos jeux", for Leïla's arrival "Une femme inconnue", "Seule au milieu de nous" & "Si tu restes fidèle" but should have been avoided in parts such as "Chassez tous ces méchants" (first scene). The rhythm was also an issue; too fast in "Une femme inconnue" and too slow at the end of the same aria "Et son chant, qui plane sur nos têtes"; very fast also after that, "Sois la bienvenue amie inconnue" & "Si tu restes fidèle"; slow again in the beginning of Act II (chorus and duet between Leïla and Nourabad); too "military" at numerous times throughout the entire piece (very unpleasant I must say, especially in the big duet between Nadir and Leïla in Act II and the end of the act). All and all, the view of John Mauceri on this piece is - let's not be afraid to use the word that comes to mind - boring.
Nadir (front) and Zurga "Au fond du temple saint", Act I Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Eric Cutler As stated before, I like Cutler's Nadir. His performance was once again interesting, as his Nadir is full of character and life. His high notes were beautiful - except for the sentence before the beginning of "Je crois entendre encore" where one note was a total disaster "ces doux chants emportés dans l'espace" and a little later on for the second "charmant souvenir". The duet with Leïla in Act II was beautiful, as well as the big aria of the first act with Zurga, "Au fond du temple saint". He might not be the greatest Nadir of all times, but he's amongst the best of this time, for sure. Nathan Gunn If Nathan Gunn's diction is truly a sinking parameter for his Zurga, his vocal performance for the Chicago premiere of Les Pêcheurs was equally unpraiseworthy. Truth be told, I was really eager to hear him in this role - well, it turns out I'm hugely disappointed. He struggled with his high notes from the middle of Act I (just after "Au fond du temple saint" but he was too weak a counterpart to Eric Cutler in that aria either) and never fully recovered ("robe son visage" was the first of many totally screwed notes). He completely drowned at the end of Act II (from "Vengez-vous, vengez-moi" to the end of the act - just several bars - I counted way too many totally awckward moments). The beginning of his big aria in Act III, "L'orage s'est calmé" was not good either but he somehow managed to get out of his mess by the second half of the piece, which was a relief (especially for me). His duet with Leïla after that was much better, and he ended the opera as an acceptable Zurga.
Zurga and Leïla, Act III Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Nicole Cabell I was wrong to be so skeptical about her. She turned out to be a pretty decent Leïla (though Patricia Ciofi was on a whole different level in Avignon last year). My issue with her is her high register, that I find oddly disgraceful. Other than that, her Leïla was worth listening to ("Me voilà seule dans la nuit" being the highlight of her performance).
Nourabad, Nadir and Leïla, Act III Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Christian van Horn As predicted, the version played in Chicago is the original 1863 version, so his score is especially tiny - hard to judge on just a few sentences. His French diction was the best of the cast, and his low register is nice. The high notes on the other hand were problematic. YouTube extract: - audio medley In conclusion, here's how I would rate the performance; John Mauceri's conduction : D Eric Cutler' Nadir : B+ Nathan Gunn's Zurga : C- Nicole Cabell's Leïla : B- Christian van Horn's Nourabad : C+ Overall : C


The Opera Tattler said...

I can sympathize with the diction problem. I've been told time and again that I'm overly pedantic about such things, but bad diction hurts the ear. I'm afraid I've been impervious to the charms of Mr. Gunn, though he was good in Billy Budd.

Extatic said...

I'm French, so I'm supposed to be pedantic, am I not?

Jeff said...

I am constantly trying to open up people's minds to the wonderful world of opera and in some instances I have been successful; however, many are still left in the dark.

I do not in any way contest your opinion(s) on this or any other production -- because they're yours and you're entitled -- but I'd like to tell you that it's people like you who turn others off to this fantastic art form. Opera was once for the people -- the masses, the gentiles and plebeians of the world. Somehow it became the pish-posh art of the Upper Class and with all the patronizing, trivializing and talking down to that goes on from self-aggrandizing elitist snobs, it's no wonder that people are intimidated.

Just my opinion.

I do enjoy reading this blog.

Extatic said...

As we say in French, "Qui aime bien, châtie bien". Meaning critizing is often induced by deceived expectations. And I do have a lot of expectations regarding this particular piece. After all, it's my favorite opera and I'm always judging in comparison with my perfect version.

Cf. http://lespecheursdeperles.blogspot.com/2007/03/paroles.html

Anonymous said...

Jeff- What are your talking about? To think "common" people will be turned away from opera because of insightful reviews is rather snobbish view. You think "common" people are to stupid too understand?! I just love it whenever someone has something intelligent to say, it will be called "talking down", "elitist". What's wrong being an elite? Why is it such a bad thing? If someone strives to be the best he or she can be, the more power to the person. Pardon my poor English, that's how I define elite. It sure bests being an idiot!

Extatic said...

Jeff, don't be so upset. I sure didn't mean to say anything about elitism - I am a fervent believer in the notion, trust me.
After all, I'm French, and elitism is an atavism in this country. :)

William said...

I was present at the Lyric Opera performance of "Pecheurs de Perles" and reviewed it for the website www.operawarhorses.com, as I did other performances of this opera in an alternative production by Zandra Rhodes as premiered at the San Diego Opera (2004 and 2008) and San Francisco Opera (2005).

I respect your holding the American singers to French standards of pronunication and mastery of the French style of singing. (I, too, believe Eric Cutler's efforts in this area should be encouraged.)

But I do also believe that the interest in American companies in French opera of the Second Empire and Third Republic is a healthy development. It started in the 1970s with a big Massenet Revival here, particularly at San Francisco Opera, and then seemed to disappear for awhile, but lately i have reviewed three separate casts of "Lakme", a new production of "Don Quichotte", and will be attending performances of "Romeo" and "Hamlet" over the next year. And we do get some French artists, such as Dessay, who, presumably, have the pronunciation right.

Nathan Gunn is a popular artist here, and many of those who turn out to see him will obtain their first exposure to "Pecheurs".

On balance, I believe that exposure to these works, in creditable productions, even without native French speakers, is a good thing.


Extatic said...


Evidently any exposure to the XIXth century French repertoire anywhere in the world is a good thing.

As far as the pronunciation is concerned, I've heard plenty of singers dealing with it properly, and most of them weren't French...
This is where the big gap lies between American and European standards: we here do try to cast singers that can not only sing, but also convey the emotions and nuances of a particular language. And pronunciation is a crucial part of the process...

William said...


Well, XIXth century French repertoire is a broader subject than I was trying to address. My defense was opera written during the Second Empire and Third Republic. This would include, of course, Gounod, Bizet and Berlioz, Delibes, Thomas, Massenet and Saint-Saens.

I have seen an Auber opera presented at San Francisco Opera, with Nicolai Gedda, and am familiar with the principal French operas of from earlier in that century, but I believe the French operas from the latter part of the century are those that are ripe for re-evaluation and whose stars will rise in the future.

My chief surprise at your response is your suggestion that such a thing exists as "the big gap between American and European standards", with the implication that European casting directors seek to "cast singers that can not only sing, but also convey the emotions and nuances of a particular language" and that American casting directors do not.

For the www.operawarhorses.com site we interview artists and artistic administrators of opera companies both in Europe and the United States. I do not believe that such a "gap" exists, nor that you would find those who make casting decisions on either continent that would associate themselves with your suggestion.

However, your opinion, even if most every artistic administrator on both sides of the Atlantic would agree you are in error, may very well be the basis for a future question on such interviews.


Extatic said...


About the language issue, I have no problem at all with being wrong however I do believe the emphasis on pronunciation is somehow higher in this side of the Atlantic.
But then again, this is clearly a personal feeling based only on personal experiences, both sides of the Atlantic.
Please do try to incorporate such a point in future interviews, I'd love to have the opinion of the singers and conductors.

About the XIXth century French opera, I couldn't agree more that the most interesting part is the one starting with the Second Empire (but that period in French History is fascinating on so many levels), and basically with Gounod.
However, one cannot fully understand the works of Gounod or Bizet (or anyone else from that time) without knowing about Halévy, Auber or Meyerbeer.

Every biography I've read about Gounod or Bizet (or every essay) can't emphasize enough the way they were educated by the Conservatoire (headed by Auber from 1842 to 1871, where Halévy was the most eminent teacher for decades).
So even if Auber & al. didn't leave such masterpieces as Gounod or others, their work is a fantastic way to understand why their pupils did achieve greatness.

William said...


I have no problem at all acknowledging the influence that Auber, Boieldieu and Halevy (and Meyerbeer) had on Gounod, Bizet, etc. I have my CDs of "La Dame Blanche", "La Muette de Portici", "Fra Diavolo", "La Juive" and a couple of the major Meyerbeers. And I would be delighted with revivals of any of these works.

However, the 21st century first order of business is to take the French masterpieces, in the time period between Gounod's "Faust" through "Pelleas" and recognize them as serious works of value and interest.

Since you are in France (Lyon is your base, is it not?) you would have a better idea of whether in France, the opera company intendants present serious productions of "Lakme", "Faust", "Romeo et Juliette", "Pecheurs de Perles" "Samson" and the Massenet canon, playing them straight rather than as alien missives from the outer planets.

It has been a mystery to me that when I am in Paris, these great French works seem not to be presented often, in serious productions. I like Paris Opera's Jonathan Miller production of "Boheme", but can raise some objections as to why "Boheme" should not be considered as a substitute for French opera.

When Opera National de Paris did "Ariane et Barbe Bleu" last season, I would have gone to it if a dependable director like Nicolas Joel or Ezio Frigerio had produced it, but just gave it a pass when I saw who conceived the production.

I would be interested in your views of this. Read some of my reviews of the French works in the www.operawarhorses.com website.

I am cautiously hopeful that French opera, even with some misprounounced words, is alive and well in such places as South Australia and the United States.


Extatic said...


A very interesting point you're bringing on: the way French repertoire is handled in the motherland.

This has been a subject of many inflammatory debates in the country - especially in Paris with now-finally departed from the Opéra de Paris- Gérard Mortier.

In the five years he was there, he conscientiously erased from the Opera de Paris most of those XIXth treasures - most significantly Gounod and Bizet.
This is why Nicolas Joël debut with Mireille in a few weeks is so highly anticipated (and why tickets are impossible to find).

This estrangement from XIXth century French opera from the opera intendants and stage directors is the manifestation of a blind elitism that states those works aren't edgy and tormented enough.

I tend to think the real issue is that these intendants aren't musicians or stage directors, only administrative staff that doesn't really have a clue on how to read an opera beneath the glitter and the first level.

But you can't really expect your repertoire to be put center stage when the intendants you appoint aren't even French, can you?

William said...


I have high regard for Nicolas Joel's productions, and have observed his work from the late 1970s at San Francisco Opera, when he was an assistant to the great French director-designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

I understand the symbolic importance of Joel taking command of the Opera National de Paris at this critical time in its history.

Thus I am of two minds about the answer to your question as to whether "[French] repertoire [can be expected] to be put center stage when the intendants you appoint aren't even French?".

I think the answer is that a French person who does not understand and appreciate French opera may not put that repertoire center stage, and that a non-French person who does, indeed, likely would.

Hopefully Joel will have a long and successful career in Paris, and we can postpone further discussion on this hypothetical question for a decade or so.