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Opera Carolina's Glowing Production of Bizet's Les Pécheurs de Perles

October 20, 2005 - Charlotte, NC:

Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles is a rarity, even in long-established venues such as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera, etc. It opened Charlotte-based Opera Carolina's season on October 20, and the performance, in the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's Belk Theater, was irresistible. With a superb and well-balanced cast of singer-actors, effective staging, stylish sets and lighting, and solid musical support from the pit, it was well worth a long drive from the Triangle.

Bizet was one of many 19th-century European composers who enthusiastically embraced exoticism – "the evocation of a place, people or social milieu that is profoundly different from accepted local norms" – to enrich their musical language. Composed in the summer of 1863 when he was 24, Les Pêcheurs de Perles was Bizet's second opera to be staged but probably the sixth in order of composition. Originally intended to have a setting in Mexico, the locale was switched to Ceylon. The title was changed, too – it was originally to have been Leïla, a priestess of Brahma and the story's central love interest. As is often the case with Bizet, a confusion of corrupt editions was clarified only with the publication of an authentic vocal score in 1975.

Zurga and Nadir are lifelong friends who had become bitter rivals for the love of the beautiful Brahmin priestess Leïla. They restored their friendship with an oath of loyalty and foreswore pursuing her love. In the first of three acts, baritone Zurga, chosen chief of the fishermen, reunited with Nadir, a tenor; they recall being in love and then renew their oath in "Au fond du temple saint," one of opera's most famous duets. Veiled soprano Leïla arrives, accompanied by the bass Nourabad, high priest of Brahma. Zurga doesn't recognize her and swears her to a vow of chastity. Nadir does recognize her and later, alone, declares his love to her. The central crisis occurs in Act II, when Leïla is torn between her holy vow and her love for Nadir. Nourabad discovers the lovers; as they are about to be killed by the villagers, Zurga intervenes until he realizes who she is and his mercy turns to rage. In Act III, Zurga struggles with his jealously and finally frees the lovers when he recognizes a jewel Leïla possesses. He had given it to her, when, as a child, she had sheltered him from pursuers.

There are only four major singing roles, and the vocalists in Opera Carolina's production are unusually well-matched, with attractive, evenly supported voices that easily filled the hall across all dynamic ranges. Troy Cook's burnished baritone was ideal for the role of Zurga. He skillfully used vocal color and inflection to convey his character's wrenching emotional turmoil, his friendship for Nadir, and his burning desire for Leïla. The heartbreak of his "Ô Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge!" was palpable. It was good to hear the true ringing quality of Fernado de la Mora's tenor as Nadir. CVNC reviewed his Rodolfo in Opera Carolina's La bohème (2004) and his Gerald in the Spoleto Festival USA's production of Lakmé. His voice blended perfectly with Cook's for the great Act I duet. His can put a tear in his voice without Gigli-like breaks, and his ability to float a gentle and quiet phrase made a gem of "Je crois entendre encore." I look forward to hearing Luiz Ottavio Faria, who possesses a dark, sepulchral bass voice, in roles that give him more dramatic scope that the implacable authority figure of the priest Nourabad did on this occasion.

The radiant Leïla was passionately embodied by soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge. CVNC reviewed her dazzling performance of Lucia di Lammermoor for Greensboro Opera. Her resplendent voice seemed effortlessly to conjure Leïla's emotions – her rapturous recollections of her love of Nadir in "Comme autrefois dans la nuit somber," her tender pleading for his life in "Pour moi, je ne crains rien," and her rage when confronted by Zurga's unrelenting jealousy. Her high notes were fearlessly attacked, precisely on center, and breathtaking!

The integration of the sets, designed by Roberto Oswald, and the lighting, designed by Michael Lincoln, was seamless. The Act III lightning storm was marvelous. A raked stage helped distribute the fine large Opera Carolina Chorus and soloists. A mix of large statuary suggested the location in Ceylon. The costumes, designed by Anibal Lapiz, were apt. The choreography, by Till Schmidt-Rimpler, was executed by members of the Moving Poets Theatre of Dance; the four women and one man were very effective, blending authentic hand gestures and stylized positions with athletic moves, swirling dances, and somersaults.

Stephanie Sundine was a major dramatic soprano of the 1970s and '80s; I regret knowing about her only from glowing reviews. She retired from singing and took up directing opera in 1998. Based on this very satisfying production, her name will be on my too short list of directors who approach works with – not against – the composer. The major confrontations – Zurga and Nadir's reunion in Act I, the renewal of the love between Leïla and Nadir in Act II, and especially the scene between Leïla and Zurga in Act III – were all effective. Sundine kept the choristers active enough to keep them from becoming static but not so much as to attract undue attention.

The opera program did not list the names of the excellent Charlotte Symphony Orchestra instrumentalists. Closely coordinating stage action with the music, conductor James Meena directed a carefully balanced and stylish performance. There were many important instrumental solos and duets involving the flute and harp, oboe, and clarinet. Leïla's Act II aria was glowingly supported by blended horns and cellos, and principal cellist Alan Black had a brief but tender solo near the end of the act.

Note: Pearl Fishers will be repeated on 10/22 & 10/23. See our calendar for details.