Bizet The Pearlfishers
If you don't know the opera, you come away from this recording with a head full of tunes, if you do know it your head is likely to be full of tunes and questions. As provoked here, the questions begin in Act 3 and end in Act 1. After Zurga's aria, the Third Act continues with a duet between him and Leila where two unfamiliar passages appear (the first at ''Quoi? l'innocent''—page 89 in the libretto—extending to ''Nadir! Ah!'', the second a solo for Zurga, ''Tu me demandais sa vie''—page 93). In the Second Tableau the opening chorus is followed (page 101) by a dramatic episode for Nadir and chorus and shortly after that comes a substantial duet for Nadir and Leila (''Ah, Leila'' to ''Nadir, adieu''—page 105). Zurga and Nadir have an additional exchange (''Par ce Dassage''—page 107) and nothing is heard of the final Trio printed in the Choudens score and performed in the Dervaux/EMI recording (''O lumiere sainte''). Dervaux also included a short but significant earlier remark by Zurga (''Mon collier''), omitted in Choudens and in the Plasson recording, and both recordings contain a reprise of the famous tune originally in the Nadir-Zurga duet of Act 1, now sung by the fleeing lovers, and not given in Choudens. The Plasson version adds, in the form of an appendix, a repeat performance of the Act 1 duet, with a totally different final section (''Amitie sainte''), absent from the original Choudens score and Dervaux. Now on all of this, we (and more particularly the section of the public that knows the opera from different and less complete performances) want information. An editorial footnote tells of ''good reasons to believe that the more familiar version [of the duet] is Bizet's'', but the assurance of good reasons is not good enough. Would it be too much to ask what they may be? The printed essay by Jean Roy contains a remark or two about posthumous alterations made after the opera's revival in 1893 but has no explanation (for example) of the textual status of Zurga's ''collier'' phrases or the ''lumiere sainte'' trio. This is an important and textually valuable recording of the opera, and some solid information on textual matters should have accompanied it—and in the days of LP doubtless would have done.
As for the performance, whatever limitations it may have, it is superior in every way to the 1960 recording under Dervaux. That of course had Gedda, who might have been a great source of strength, but who here settles down like the rest of the cast into dull routine. Janine Micheau's clean well-placed production earns gratitude but she never begins to suggest the youth, the fears and tenderness of the girl, while Ernest Blanc and Jacques Mars sing without lustre of voice or spirit, seasoned artists though we know them to be. By comparison Plasson's team have youth on their side and much more than that. Barbara Hendricks has a silvery beauty of voice, charmingly apt in the Brahma Invocation, and she is always imaginatively involved: her ''Je fremis, je chancelle'' in Act 3 most touchingly embodies the frightened young girl who sees tragedy before her. John Aler, less than ideal in the Romance, sings his off-stage serenade most gracefully and is even better in the Love Duet. The Nourabad, Jean-Philippe Courtis, is authoritative and sonorous, and Gino Quilico invests his role with such splendid qualities that for once Zurga takes his rightful place as the central figure in the drama. The Act 3 solo sung conventionally can seem to be little more than Buggins's turn for the baritone, here it is heard as a reflective, deeply personal soliloquy, which with the subsequent duet constitutes the most moving part of the whole performance.
Plasson favours generally slower speeds than the metronome markings (Bizet's?) in the score but all is in due proportion and kept within welljudged limits. Orchestral playing is fine, and the chorus work particularly neat. If there are disappointments they lie for the most part in the famous numbers where we all have a favourite recording to judge by. In ''Au fond du temple saint'' Aler does not sing a soft B flat as does Alessandro Bonci on an andent Fonotipia, and in ''Ton coeur n'a pas compris'' he has not the poetry of Fernando de Lucia (though both of those sing in Italian which for some might put them out of court). Barbara Hendricks has not Ninon Vallin's fine sense of line in ''Comme autre-fois'', and in ''Je crois entendre encore'' neither the singer nor the orchestra captures the feeling for the dreamy melody drifting in the warm night air among the forest leaves rustling in the lightest of breezes. Indeed at that point in the opera it is not clear that this is going to be such a worthy recording; it gets better by the act, and ultimately is not to be missed.'