Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at Santa Fe Opera


Review by Rodney Punt

The Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Bizet’s early The Pearl Fishers is a handsome new production in a season full of winners. A charming work by a young composer of unmistakable talent and promise, it abounds in good tunes, winsome vocal lines, clear orchestrations and stunning choruses. At its premiere in 1863, no less a critic than Hector Berlioz praised it as having “beautiful, expressive pieces full of fire and rich coloring.” Yet it is a work that also reveals the still-forming composer’s tendency toward prolixity and foursquare phrasing. (Bizet’s naturalistic style and unerring narrative flow would arrive thirteen years later with Carmen).

The first two acts of Pearl Fishers showcase the 24-year-old Bizet’s innate gift for melting lyricism, even as his set pieces go on a bit long for optimal pacing. The third act’s dramatic-action score, effective as it is, contains writing least characteristic of the mature Bizet, while exhibiting a clear debt (also a kindred spirit) to Verdi’s well-honed techniques.

The story, set in ancient Ceylon, centers around two old friends, Zurga and Nadir, who meet up in a fishing village after a number of years’ separation caused by their rivalry for a young lady named Leïla. Zurga has just been selected as king and granted full authority for major decisions. Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, imports a virgin to the village to help protect it from the natural disasters prone to all divers for pearls. As fate would have it, the virgin is Leïla, whose presence rekindles old passions and jealousies between the two reunited friends.

Baritone Christopher Magiera, as Zurga, had the flexy pecs if not quite the dusky chops to claim leadership in this village (it took a spell for the voice to loosen up). His was the most complex character, one who ultimately achieves nobility as he wrestles with threats to his village and copes with the jealousy he feels in Nadir’s pursuit of Leïla. Eric Cutler’s gleaming lyric tenor, as Nadir, was powerful and ardent in a love that could not help betraying a best friend for the one who would not be denied. Their duet, "Au fond du temple Saint," is the show-stopper (recycled throughout the opera) that became more famous than the opera itself.


As Leïla (aka Priestess of Brahma), the girl they fight over, Nicole Cabell was a perfectly cast exotic beauty whose relatively large-sized soprano wandered a bit in the first act, but warmed, brightened, and focused later into a gorgeous lyric sound, full of passion and drama. Imposing bass Wayne Tigges, as Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, was the stern voice of eternal authority and amatory unforgiveness toward Leïla.

Lee Blakeley’s sure-handed direction, aided by Jean-Marc Puissant’s gorgeous unit set of a stage-wide and opened picture frame, allowed for a free flow of a large cast of fisher folk -- from the current action in front of the frame to the remembrance of things past behind it. Not incidentally, the back of the set was wide open to Santa Fe’s cloud-filled skyline, in perfect synchronization with the unfolding saga of life at a seaside with its stormy weather.

Rick Fisher’s lighting evoked a fairy-tale setting and bathed the action in the saturated hues of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Its chromatic intensity nicely complemented Bizet’s clear-bright orchestral colors, prominently in the woodwinds.


In a large cast of fishermen and their ladies, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s fanciful costumes cannily showed off a profession’s muscularity. The buff torsos of the men, as they bent and flexed while hauling in their trophies and victims, were complemented by the exposed midriffs of their slender, comely women. (And here, we must praise the SFO’s training program that recruits young vocalists who know that today’s theatrical opera productions require lithe bodies in addition to luscious voices.)

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and his crack orchestral charges illuminated the work’s ever-shifting colors, allowing breathing time in Act I’s languid reveries, picking up the pace in Act II’s passionate declarations, and thrusting the orchestra into the center of the action in Act III’s dramatic conflicts. 

Susanne Sheston’s chorus was well prepared for the idiomatic, clearly delineated, and powerful choral passages that rival those in Il Trovatore and Nabucco, and provide a prescient foretaste of like work in Britten’s sea operas. The ever-present singing fishers so animate this opera they collectively become another protagonist in the action. Bizet’s marvelous choruses alone justify the revival of Pearl Fishers.


The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet
New Production of the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 31, 2012
Remaining performances: August 10, 13, 22, 25

Photo by Ken Howard, used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at: [email protected]

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