Review: An Enchanting “Pearl Fishers” with Castronovo, Amsellem and Dazely – San Francisco Opera, June 26, 2005

The San Francisco Opera, for the first time in “main season” history presented 24-year old Georges Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs de perles [The Pearl Fishers”]. Although French Second Empire opera fare had not been associated with the General Directorship of San Francisco Opera’s Pamela Rosenberg, she signed up San Francisco to be the second stop for the San Diego Opera’s spectacular new Zandra Rhodes production of the opera.

That production [Zandra Rhodes’ New Look for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”: San Diego Opera, February 27, 2004] was based on Arthur Hammond’s restoration of the final scene of Bizet’s original score, the last part of which had been unperformed for most of the 20th century.

The cast was led by the attractive trio of Norah Amsellem as Leila, Castronovo as Nadir and British singer William Dazely as Zurga. Amsellem, who had previously sung Liu in “Turandot”, in two separate seasons at the San Francisco Opera, performed the role with an expressive lyric coloratura voice that fit beautifully with Bizet’s haunting melodies.

[Below: Norah Amsellem as Leila; edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

California tenor Charles Castronovo (himself a graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program) and lyric baritone William Dazely were the rivals for Leila’s affections, respectively Nadir and Zurga. Both were triumphant in the opera’s most famous showpiece Au fond du temple sainte (one of the most popular tenor-baritone duets in opera).

Castronovo’s appealing lyric tenor and movie star looks made him a compelling choice to perform Nadir. He had previously been the Tamino in another celebrity-designed operatic production – David Hockney’s creation of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” – one of San Francisco Opera’s current treasures.

[Below: Nadir (Charles Castronovo, left) re-establishes his friendship with Zurga (William Dazely, right) on Nadir’s return to the community; edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Zurga, Dazely projected the pyschological torment that this character faced, which I found dramatically persuasive, even conceding a deus ex machina device that resulted in Zurga shifting from an official seeking vengeance against Leila’s and Nadir’s declaration of love to becoming the ennabler of the couple’s escape from their death sentence.

Also in the cast was bass-baritone Mark Coles as Nourabad. Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducted. Andrew Sinclair directed. Ian Robertson was Chorus Master.

The place of “Pearl Fishers” in the operatic repertory

“The Pearl Fishers” is one of a trio of wonderfully melodic operas that premiered at Paris’ Theatre Lyrique during France’s Second Empire.”Pearl Fishers” premiered four years after “Faust”, the first giant hit of Bizet’s teacher, Charles Gounod. Five years after “Pearl Fishers” Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” premiered.

In the last few decades all three operas seemed to be produced relatively infrequently, at least when compared to their past performance histories, but suddenly in the 21st century, to the horror of some critics, all three are beginning to stir.

All three, of course, are singer’s operas, and singer’s operas depend on the availability and interest of singers that audiences want to come to hear. Even with Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballe managing to sell out performances, the past few decades have been quite tenor-centric.

The performance’s Nadir, Charles Castronovo, is a lyric tenor of the first rank, the voice type for which the roles of Faust and Romeo in Gounod’s operas and Nadir in “Pearl Fishers” were written.

[Below: Charles Castronovo as Nadir, the role in played at San Francisco Opera in 2005, in a revival at San Diego Opera and at Washington National Opera in 2008, edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph.]

The 21st Century Ascendancy of the “Lyric” Weight Roles

Thirty years ago (as now) superstar tenors were not usually native speakers of French. With an abundance of large voices to sing the popular, vocally heavier Verdi and Puccini tenor roles, when the superstars performed the French tenor repertory, it was more usually one of the more dramatic tenor parts such as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen”, Samson in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” or Hoffman in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffman”. There was an international tenor star associated with Faust, Nadir and Romeo – the Spaniard Alfredo Kraus – but it was the two Gounod roles that we associate with his onstage performances, rather than the Bizet.

Now it is different. Perhaps it is a temporary phenomenon, but for the time being there seem to be fewer singers that can comfortably perform the dramatic soprano and tenor roles, but a much larger supply of singers who have the capacity to excel in the vocally lighter roles we would associate with, among the tenors of the past generation, Alfredo Kraus.

To some extent, it is a stage in a singer’s career path. After all, after his 1967 obligatory introduction to San Francisco as Rodolfo in “La Boheme” (the role that Luciano Pavarotti imposed on all operatic managements for his first performances at a new house – see what you can get away with if you have perhaps the greatest tenor voice of the last half of the 20th century), Pavarotti’s roles for his second and third seasons at San Francisco Opera were two roles in the Donizetti operas in which Kraus excelled – Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor” (1968) and Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” (1969).

In fact, Pavarotti’s immediate predecessor as Nemorino in Lotfi Mansouri’s new 1967 production was Alfredo Kraus. Pavarotti argued that as he grew older, his voice became more comfortable with the heavier roles. Kraus argued that his own voice perfectly suited the roles in the quite small list of roles that comprised his repertory and to depart from that style of singing would be injurious to his career. Neither ever lacked job offers.

Look through the repertories of so many of today’s talented singers and you will find whole new crops of Leilas, Nadirs and Zurgas. This, the new scholarly work on Bizet’s scores, and the fact the “Les pêcheurs de perles” is almost inevitably cheaper to produce and is currently easier to cast than, say, Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, leads one to feel encouraged about the opera’s immediate future.

[Below: The performance’s final curtain calls, front row, left to right, Mark Coles as Nourabad, Charles Castronovo as Nadir, Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Norah Amsellem as Leila and William Dazely as Zurga; edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But why should we care that much about this opera with its traditional lightweight reputation? Are we currently simply infatuated with a “guilty pleasure”? With Zandra Rhodes’ zany concepts? With the desire of opera managements for some audience approbation to balance their serious offerings – such as productions of Berg’s “Wozzeck”?

Or should we be interested in “Les pêcheurs de perles” for yet another reason – the possibility that when we really hear what Bizet wrote we will learn more about this genius who died so young. What are the operas that are performed with some degree of frequency composed by persons under 25? There are two: Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs de perles”. At 25 Wagner will not have composed “Rienzi” (which is almost never performed) for a half decade. Verdi’s career will have hardly begun.

Then consider that Bizet’s “Carmen” was composed in the year before his death at age 37. Verdi at that age had had some recent success a year before with “Luisa Miller” but much, much less success with the product of that year – “Stiffelio”. He will not begin his trio of mega-hit operas, “Rigoletto”, “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” for two or three more years. Wagner will have produced “Der Fliegende Holländer”, “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin”, but the great works of his maturity are well beyond that age. Puccini will have produced “Manon Lescaut” but “La Boheme” will not be produced for another year, and his other most famous works will be produced in his 40s or in the case of “Turandot” in his 60s. The only reason that all of Mozart’s and Bellini’s operas would make the list of operas that have been composed before age 37 is because both are dead by their 37th year.

Bizet, one of the most creative composers that has lived among us, produced “Carmen”, the most popular opera of all time, recognized as a work of genius by his contemporaries. His earliest major operatic composition, “Les pêcheurs de perles” remains in the repertory, and his genius stares at us even through the more mutilated versions of his work. If we knew that we had a painting by the young Raphael that was partly painted over by a later hack, but if we also knew it was possible to remove the offensive overlays of paint and restore most of the original work, would we not do it? Why don’t we try to get as close to what Bizet intended us to hear as we can, and then decide how we should value his work?

It was a big hit there too. In fact, since I had been talking up the San Diego production which I had seen the previous year, subscribers at the final July, 2005 performance I had never met came over to ask me why this opera had never been performed in the San Francisco main season before!