Saturday, December 09, 2017

Review: A whimsically colorful "Pearl Fishers" at Chicago Lyric Opera

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Mariusz Kwiecheń and the company
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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Georges Bizet's 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) is a classic example of a weak libretto bolstered by a very strong score. The Lyric Opera of Chicago production, which originated with San Diego Opera in 2004, takes it up a notch with theatrically canny direction by Andrew Sinclair, colorfully fanciful sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes inspired by Indian and Balinese art and, most importantly, really splendid singing by all four members of the cast.

Nobody expected much from the 24-year-old Bizet when he was handed the libretto of The Pearl Fishers. Yes, he had just won the prestigious Prix de Rome, but his big hit Carmen was still 12 years in the future and his only previous opera was the one-act Le docteur miracle. Indeed, he only got the commission by the Théâtre-Lyrique because a noble patron had given the company a large endowment specifically to stage operas by Prix de Rome winners.

No surprise, then, that the team of Eugène Carmon and Michel Carré put only minimal effort into a hastily assembled mashup of the then-current novel L'île de Celan et ses curiosités naturelles (roughly, "The Isle of Ceylon and Its Natural Attractions") and La vestale, an 1807 opera by Gaspare Spontini about a vestal virgin whose hormones get the better of her.

The story about Ceylon pearl fishers Zurga and Nadir, lifelong friends driven apart by their mutual love for the priestess Leïla, makes little dramatic sense, but Bizet surprised everyone by setting it to some irresistible music. "Au fond du temple saint," the Act I duet in which the two men swear that their earlier infatuation with Leïla will never part them again has become something of an operatic Greatest Hit and the rest of the score is filled with equally appealing stuff.

Andrea Silvestrelli and Marina Rekeba
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecheń, so impressive in the title role of Lyric's Eugene Onegin last season, once again commands the stage as Zurga, whose election as king of the pearl fishers is interrupted by the unexpected return of Nadir after years of absence. Mr. Kwiecheń's authoritative voice and credible acting go a long way towards mitigating the role's absurdities. Tenor Matthew Polenzani's passionate Nadir is equally worthy of praise, clearly sung and smartly acted. Their "bromance" duet was warmly received the night we saw the show.

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka displayed a soaring, gravity-defying voice in Leïla's Act II "Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre," a vocally elaborate number in which she recalls her earlier romance with Nadir. Like her co-stars, Ms. Rebeka delivered a fully realized character, and her second act love duet with Mr. Polenzani struck real sparks.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli rounds out the cast, giving vocal and dramatic weight to the small but pivotal role of the stern high priest Nourabad.

The clarity and power of the Lyric Opera chorus has never failed to impress me in the past and their work here is no exception. Bizet has given them some prime material, like the hymn to Brahma that closes the second act, and they more than do it justice. The orchestra did well by the score as well, under Sir Andrew Davis's experienced direction.

Dancers in Act II
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
In his program note, director Andrew Sinclair acknowledges the theatrical weakness of the opera's libretto and talks about the small tweaks he has made to give it a bit more coherence. When Nadir makes his first appearance, for example, Mr. Sinclair has Zurga greet him with a dismissing pro forma handshake, suggesting that there is still some bad blood between them. The tension continues during "Au fond du temple saint," which begins with the two singers on opposite sides of the stage. They don't actually come together until the final moments of the number, which gives the song more dramatic weight and hints at the gulf that might still exist. It's one of many strong choices that add credibility without undercutting the intentions of the opera's creators.

Mr. Sinclair has also added a dancing chorus, with choreography by John Malashock that feels strongly inspired by Indian and Indonesian folk traditions. The dancers play a strong narrative role, adding visual interest to elaborate choral numbers like the Act II scene in which Zurga condemns Nadir and Leïla to death for blasphemy.

Combine all that with those imaginative visuals from Ms. Rhodes and the result is a Pearl Fishers that is a delight to both the eye and ear. Bizet and his librettists never had it so good.

Lyric Opera's The Pearl Fishers runs through Sunday, December 10th, at their theatre in the Chicago Loop, alternating with their equally splendid production of Puccini's Turandot. Both are well worth a trip to the Windy City.

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