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How grand can an opera be when there are only four singing characters? In the case of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Opera Carolina is demonstrating that, with an ample chorus and a rambunctious light show, the majesty and spectacle of this little gem can be quite impressive. Flanked by the ultramodern Magic Flute presented at Belk Theater in January and Opera Carolina’s season opener for 2013-14, Aida, this Pearl Fishers will likely manage not to appear petite in the eyes of most subscribers. At times, this new production goes overboard in upsizing itself but with only minor collateral damage to the opera.
Like the cast of principals, the design team is altogether different from the one listed in my program when this Bizet bijou was last presented in 2005. Bernard Uzan and Michael Baumgarten have collaborated on a set that handsomely depicts the Sri Lankan beach where soul brothers Zurga and Nadir will be fatefully reunited with Leila, the beautifully alluring priestess that the pearl fishers mutually forswore years earlier. At curtain rise, we also see a corner of the holy Brahmin temple where the purportedly chaste Leila will be immured. Baumgarten is also the lighting designer, which ought to bode well for a nice mesh between the sets and the light. But Baumgarten is also at the helm of the projection designs, and with these he is like a hyperactive child with a box of new toys. Starting with a moonlit prospect of the ocean, Baumgarten riffles through a daylong sequence of shoreline prospects, shifting perspective along the way so that blue skies and fleecy clouds replace the ocean, finally muting into dusk – all within the opening “Sur la grève en feu” chorus!
Baumgarten’s most effective stroke, during the great “Au fond du temple” duet, is his boldest. As the two friends recall their first sight of the enchanting priestess, the rift her beauty caused between them, and the conciliating oath they swore never to pursue her, a preternaturally large image of this maiden looms behind them in the pitch-black sky, as much a fate as a memory. Projections aren’t nearly as inspired or daring after that, though Baumgarten doesn’t entirely let loose of his restlessness, inexplicably inserting a villagescape into the rotation of backgrounds. Most puzzling perhaps was the spectacular storm unleashed by Baumgarten and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, vibrantly directed all evening long by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, at the climax of Act 2. Leila and Nadir have been found by the Brahmin high priest Nourabad defiling the temple, and Zurga finally recognizes the unveiled priestess. While lightning rips the sky, not a single drop of rain falls onstage, belying the fear and unrest of the villagers. We have to wonder why Uzan and Baumgarten didn’t follow the usual custom and design the set as the interior of a ruined temple instead of yet another open beachfront. If there is a plausible explanation, my guess is that the projections were added late in the production process, after the sets had been built.
Very little is amiss in the music once tenor Chad Johnson gets his bearings as Nadir in his Charlotte debut. From the outset, Mark Walters, was a decisive upgrade over the wooden baritone who was Zurga in 2005, acting with unquestionable authority and singing in full, rich tones. By the time their duet arrived, both leading men were in top form. But even as Johnson dominated the stage in Act 2, I found myself impatient for the more majestic Walters’ return, already cataloguing in my mind the roles Opera Carolina can bring him back for before his star rises too high. Janinah Burnett’s company debut as Leila was nearly as auspicious as Walters’, muted only by that veil and that chastity. I can pronounce myself satisfied with the soprano, who lives up to the portent of her projection, but I remain curious about what she can show me in more florid roles.
Dramatically speaking, I suppose that opera choirs need not sound as pure and polished as concert or church choirs, but the Opera Carolina Chorus came mighty close as the Sri Lankan villagers, reliably providing the fullness and amplitude that the projections strained to achieve. Sacred and everyday costumes by Betsy Blackmore always chimed well with the décor; striking yet never overly garish for ceremonial leaders Zurga, Leila, and Nourabad; never too shabby for the villagers while setting Nadir distinctly apart. Local bass baritone John Fortson has become Opera Carolina’s go-to municipal and religious chieftain in recent seasons in Otello, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, and The Magic Flute. On the strength of his orotund pronouncements and denunciations here as Nourabad, they can keep going to him.