Unknown Bizet, or an oriental love story

A light, juvenile symphony and the exotic opera Djamileh by Georges Bizet charmed the audience on Friday night.

The major work on the programme of the Friday concert was the opera Djamileh, while Symphony in C major, composed by a 17-year-old Bizet in 1855, served as an appetizer. Surprisingly, it was this symphony by Georges Bizet that emerged as a true gem, a juvenile work of the brilliant composer of the legendary Carmen. Let’s say it right up front: there is nothing innovative about it, indeed quite the opposite: we find clear influences of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, or even the Italian bel canto composers. Bizet’s style was yet to come. But the symphony is characterized by unpretentiousness, charm, and an exuberant wealth of musical ideas and connotations. It gives us many delectable passages: the oboe solo, which brings an oriental feel (a good introduction to Djamileh), the rustic third movement (Menuetto: Allegro vivace) with a pastoral oboe solo, or the tonally attractive instrumental effects, such as the pizzicato accompaniment of the violins in the second movement (Adagio). The work sounded splendid under the direction of Łukasz Borowicz.

The story of Djamileh is grist to the mill of those idealists and romantics who believe that love always wins and even the most happy-go-lucky man will finally allow himself to be ensnared by love. Georges Bizet’s one-act opera Djamileh (1871), which yesterday received its Polish premiere in concert form under highly successful Łukasz Borowicz, is set to a libretto by Louis Gallet. Sultan Haroun (tenor) is an oriental counterpart of the Duke of Mantua from Verdi’s Rigoletto, an inveterate womanizer whose “heart is a desert”; he has a passion for sex with slave-girls – every month his servant Splendiano (baritone – George Mosley) provides him with a new mistress. His next slave-girl is Djamileh (mezzo-soprano), who does not conceal her burning affection for Haroun. Her faith moves mountains: the remorseful sultan declares his love, and a happy ending ensues. For this simple story Bizet composed charming music, and it’s a wonder it was not appreciated by his contemporaries. Especially the accusations of his being influenced by Wagner seem absurd today: Djamileh is a superbly instrumented score, in which French charm is combined with oriental style to create an enchanting atmosphere.

Bizet’s opera, unknown to the public in Poland, received a fine performance at the Easter Festival. Łukasz Borowicz rose to the task with care and characteristic enthusiasm which infected the Poznań Chamber Choir and the Orchestra of Poznań Philharmonic. An interesting approach was to entrust the recitatives to an actor – Wojciech Pszoniak read the Polish text, the lines that each of the protagonists would deliver on stage. The word “read” would be an understatement: for each character – Haroun, Splendiano, Djamileh and the Slave Merchant, the actor found a distinct timbre and pitch, thus speaking in many voices and becoming a polyphonic actor. He adopted a buffa tone (Djamileh is a comic opera) and used irony to show the alleged suffering of Haroun, blasé from having too many women. A theatre of imagination.

Well done to soloists! The performance of Djamileh, with the artistic consultancy of Piotr Kamiński, was carried out in collaboration with the Yale School of Music Voice and Opera Department and its artistic director, professor Doris Yarick-Cross. The lyrical tenor of Eric Barry, with whom the festival audience is familiar, sounded great as Haroun. What gave me the greatest pleasure was to hear the dense, flowing legato sung with one continuous breath by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, who portrayed Djamileh. She has achieved a lot as an artist, singing Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, Adalgisa in Norma and Carmen with St. Petersburg Opera and – interestingly for Poles – Sofia in Halka with the German Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern.

Anna S. Dębowska

Friday, 7 April, 7:30 pm, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall