Friday December 15th 2017

“The Pearl Fishers” reviewed by Jacob Davis

 Imagine what an old Technicolor sword-and-sandal movie would be like as on opera, and you’ve got a good idea of what the San Diego Opera production of The Pearl Fishers directed by Andrew Sinclair is like. Known in the original French as Les pêcheurs de perles, this 1863 work by the then-twenty-four year old Georges Bizet of Carmen fame is full of sentimental rhetoric, toned flesh, richly accented 2-D set pieces populated by bustling crowds, and Orientalist exoticism, the last of which doesn’t fly as well today. Besides wringing all the humanity out of the characters he can, Sinclair’s concept is centered on the overwhelming panoply of colors supplied by set and costume designer Zandra Rhodes, of the London fashion scene. Rhodes did, at least, draw from real Sri Lankan temples and clothing for inspiration, demonstrating more interest in authenticity than the nineteenth century librettists, who arbitrarily changed the location from Mexico during their writing process. If the use of Andalusian-sounding music to represent a Tamil Hindu community isn’t something that instantly turns you off, the design, the Lyric’s charismatic cast of singing actors, and the digestible music conducted by Sir Andrew Davis make for an enjoyably indulgent few hours of escapism.

In a small pearl fishing village, the people have just elected Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecień) to be their leader during an important religious ritual. Zurga’s friend, Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), has just returned after the two fought over a priestess they met in another city, but they have since reconciled. Unbeknown to them, the priestess hired for the present ritual, Leïla (Marina Rebeka), is the same one, but she is required to take a vow of chastity and to keep herself veiled upon pain of death. Leïla loves Nadir and they recognize each other, setting them up for conflict with Zurga as their friend and their king.

If Bizet’s compositions this early in his career weren’t what made him immortal, they were still quite beautiful. Zurga and Nadir’s duet “Au fond du temple saint,” with its flute and harp accompaniment, is tender, tranquil, and Romantic in every sense of the word. It’s tune also gets repeated about fifteen times throughout the opera, making it an unforgettable earworm. Kwiecień, the baritone who most recently played Eugene Onegin at the Lyric, brings a Charlton Heston vibe to the role of Zurga. An announcement was made at intermission that he had a cough, but he still opened the act with a melodious rendition of “L’orage est calme” which, other than making the metaphorical line “I am sick with fever” unintentionally funny, was met with great approval. Soprano Marina Rebeka, who conveys an impressive amount of feeling with tilts of her head while wearing a veil, sent the audience on a flight of fancy with her aria “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre, ” as she recounts falling in love with Nadir. Tenor Polenzani then joins her for the duet “Leïla! Leïla! Dieu puissant, le voilà!” which is full of extravagant rhetoric but musically transfixing. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the priest Nourabad is an appropriately resonant, authoritarian figure, and the chorus, directed by Michael Black, form a serious presence in a story which is largely about social pressure.

With their magenta glow-in-the-dark palm fronds and intricately detailed pillars, Rhodes’s sets resemble a delightful children’s pop-up book. Lighting designer Ron Vodicka supports her magic by taking full advantage of the opportunities for tropical moon and sunlight. Twelve dancers, choreographed by John Malashock, bring a lot of visual dynamism, but the choreography matches the decidedly not-South Asian music. Under Sir Andrew Davis’s conducting, the two and a half hour run time flies by, and Sinclair’s choice for how to end the show is a pleasantly bold surprise. The Pearl Fishers feels more dated than a lot of its contemporaries, but also seems to have been made with the intent of being lighter entertainment than most other surviving operas. Coming immediately on the heels of Die Walküre in the current Lyric season, that’s an interesting change of pace and, for some, could come as a welcome break.

The Pearl Fishers will continue at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago, thru December 10, with the following showtimes:

November 22    2:00 pm

November 25    7:30 pm

November 29    7:30 pm

December 4       7:30 pm

December 7       7:30 pm

December 10     2:00 pm

Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.

The Lyric offers parking deals with Poetry Garage at 201 W Madison St. if inquired about in advance. Tickets are $17-319; to order, visit LyricOpera.org or call 321-827-5600.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “The Pearl Fishers.”

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