The general consensus is that Bizet’s first mature work is a decent piece of music but not such a great opera, due largely to Louis Gallet’s static, character-deficient libretto after Alfred de Musset’s of-its-time story Namouna. On this evidence, that sounds about right. But opinion might have moved on with respect to Bizet’s importing of Oriental elements into his three-hander telling of a caliph falling for one of his monthly mistresses. Hanslick and others believed the composer had done so tastefully. Yes, there are examples of that – as in the melisma-strewn aria that oscillates on the Aeolian scale as the title character spins Haroun a love-fuelled yarn to soften him up – but there are a good few that sound awkwardly close to caricature (mostly when the chorus is involved).
When Bizet isn’t feeling the need to almost literally spice it up, the exoticism of his score is undoubtedly one of its key strengths. That is evoked through unusual phrase shapes, evocative instrumentation (including an offstage chorus evoking a sunset over the Nile), a distinct form of sensuality that modulates with sliding ease and some heated harbingers of Carmen.
As it is, Djamileh’s tale doesn’t work; she sings a Lament and is forced to disguise herself as the next slave girl in order to persuade Haroun of her love. That does the trick, and the work ends in an enraptured 15-minute duet. That’s where this live recording from the ever-curious Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw comes good, as Łukasz Borowicz paces his orchestra and singers carefully but surely towards the finish line.
Elsewhere, plusses and minuses. Jennifer Feinstein doesn’t have the plangent voice that the part of Djamileh most obviously suggests and she is heavy in some of the melismatic passages. But there is a delicious darkness to her voice, sure consistency across its range and a rare control of vibrato whether she is passionately railing or looking tenderly inwards. She is the vocal highlight next to the slightly less charismatic but well-sung Haroun of Eric Barry and Splendiano of George Mosley (the latter struggles to tune in the ensemble pieces). All three project as in a live concert performance – which this is – and the chorus does so even more. Not the subtlest performance of an opera that could be said to live by subtlety; but, with the only real alternative being Lucia Popp’s well-known but in some respects dated recording from 1983, this will do fine for now.