Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bizet's Other Opera: The Pearl Fishers

I have seen a lot of opera in my time, all the classics and a few rarities here and there; not a bad track record for a Midwest boy. One that had alluded me, however, was Bizet's early "The Pearl Fishers". Thankfully, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City has mounted a production of the opera, further demonstrating the Opera's commitment to bring world class performances of more rarely staged opera to a regional audience.

Of course everyone knows the tenor/baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint" from the first act, one of the most incredibly beautiful and moving moments in all of opera. And then it ends there, the rest being a mystery.

"The Pearl Fishers" is certainly not a Carmen, but is chock full of wonderful melody, dramatic choruses and endless possibilities for staging. I for one, do not think the plot is all that much worse than some much more famous operas, but I can not deny the fact that it is a bit slow moving.

Set in the exotic locale of Ceylon, fisherman prepare themselves for a new season and elect Zurga as their new leader. Nadir arrives after a long absence and is reunited with his friend, Zurga. They reminisce about their lives and friendship including a vow they made regarding a woman they both saw at a temple. She was so beautiful that both men fell in love with her on sight. However, to remain friends, they agree to not pursue her.

A boat arrives carrying the veiled Virgin who will be the guardian spirit for the pearl diving season. Zurga does not yet recognize her as Leila, the young woman he and Nadir fell in love with. Zurga has Leila swear an oath that she is a virgin and the protector of fishermen. He threatens her with death if her vow is broken. But Nadir and Leila recognize each other; Leila sings of the love they share.

The second act is a bit slow, albeit short. Suffice to say Nadir meets up with Leila and is discovered by Zurga, and he condemns them to death. The third act has Zurga distraught over condemning his life long friend and his love Leila. They are about to meet their fate when they escape, a feat made possible by none other than Zurga. They flee while Zurga faces his certain fate, satisfied he paid back Leila and Nadir for their friendship.

Thus the Pearl Fishers is a steamy tale (in reality a passionate, forbidden love triangle); a deep friendship tested by loyalty and forbidden love, accompanied by wonderfully lyrical and sensual music penned by the 25 year old Bizet, 12 years before his magnum opus Carmen.

The Lyric's performance highlighted both the highs and lows of the opera. The staging was a bit cliched and contrived, but it did fit the plot. The steeply banked stage had me wondering if the whole thing was going to topple into the pit, and frankly did nothing to enhance the action. Not knowing much about clothing in ancient Ceylon, I can only assume the costumes were somewhat fitting of the locale, but they were nothing special.

Special however was the singing and the orchestra, much as in the horribly staged "Aida" of last month. The famous duet was well sung and moving, though the Nadir Brian Stucki could use a more powerful voice. Zurga, sung and acted wonderfully by Troy Cook, was well nigh perfect in both the duet and his final scene. Angela Turner Wilson was wonderful both vocally and in her very sincere and human portrayal of Leila. The orchestra relished Bizet's lush melodies and mature orchestration.

I am richer for having the opportunity to experience Bizet's "other opera" and to know a satisfying opera lurks beyond "Au fond du Temple Saint".

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