Review: Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers”, May 9, 2008

In 2004, San Diego Opera mounted a new production of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” (The Pearl Fishers), that since has traveled to Detroit (Michigan Opera Theatre, which co-owns the production), San Francisco, New York City Opera and Miami (Florida Grand Opera).  It returned to the San Diego Civic Theatre, this May, with Zandra Rhodes’ exotic sets newly repainted for its home company revival.  A posting that combines reviews of the 2004 San Diego and 2005 San Francisco performances, with which is included a musicological essay on the opera, is included in the website’s February, 2006 archives and should be regarded as relevant background for this review.

[Below: Nadir (Charles Castronovo) and Zurga (Malcolm MacKenzie) begin the famous Act I duet, “Au fond du temple saint”; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

For San Diego Opera’s 2008 mounting of the popular production, it had an almost completely new cast led by the Nadir of Charles Castronovo (who performed the role opposite Norah Amsellem’s Leila when this production traveled to San Francisco Opera in 2005 and who rejoins Amsellem at Kennedy Center this Fall for the production’s debut with the Washington National Opera).

San Diego’s Leila was  Castronovo’s wife, Ekaterina Siurina.  The couples’ story-book romance has been referenced on this website before – their meeting and then succumbing to the elixir of love when cast as Adina and Nemorino in a Berlin production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”.

Although Castronovo and Siurina have been married long enough that the newlywed descriptor can be retired, the lead time that opera companies have these days for casting their future productions (and with some of Siurina’s time set aside for child-rearing), there have not been many opportunities to hear the couple perform in the same opera.  Their careers have been centered in the leggiero vocal category of, respectively, the tenor and soprano repertoire, and “Pecheurs” has emerged as one of the most popular works of our day with two leggiero lead roles.   I can report that their San Diego performances proved to be a great triumph.

[Below: Nadir (Charles Castronovo) and Leila (Ekaterina Siurina) in their Act II duet; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]


But in 2008 San Diego Opera audiences were given something different than they saw in 2004, besides the new trio of principals and the fresh coat of paint. Like in 2004, the opera’s ending differed from the illegitimate ending, unknown to Bizet, that opera-goers saw in traditional performances of the opera throughout the 20th century.  But the San Diego ending of 2008 was different also from what San Diego saw in 2004.

The rehabilitation of “Pearl Fishers” that the San Diego production represented has been a work in progress, with the 2oo4 San Diego performance, its 2005 appearances in Detroit with the Michigan Opera Theatre and its 2005 New York City Opera mountings, each having a different ending.  San Diego’s 2008 ending is the version seen in New York City and San Francisco, suggesting that the production teams, musicologists and conductors may be moving towards a consensus on what should be the opera’s definitive denouement.

With so many cities interested in incorporating the San Diego production into their seasons, it continues to provide an opportunity for the dramatic team, led by stage director Andrew Sinclair, to work on new ideas in each city it plays.  Committed to restoring Bizet’s problematic work to something more like what the composer intended (while sharpening the dramatic edge), he has constructed backstories to explain the libretto’s sometimes inchoate presentation of the relationships between the four principal characters.

He has also worked with the many fine young opera stars who have sung these roles in the Detroit, New York City, San Francisco, Miami and two San Diego mountings to engage their valuable insights into how these characters can be made into “flesh and blood”.

[Below: the villagers (played by members of Malaschock Dance), capture and imprison Nadir (Charles Castronovo); edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Sinclair has also given considerable thought to one aspect of operatic production to which many stage directors and opera managements devote less thought that Sinclair would wish – how to use the dance sequences that the librettists and composer have written into the operatic scores to enhance the dramatic action.

The idea might seem odd to some that dramatic potential exists in French opera dance sequences, particularly those in “Pecheurs de Perles”. But Sinclair commissioned John Malashock to choreograph and to have Malashock Dance, the troupe of artists based in San Diego that he leads, perform a series of aggressive dance sequences that would represent the mood of the village and the stake the village has in the affairs of the four principals. The dances worked so well in performance, that parts of the dances at the end of Act II that are traditionally cut, were restored to lengthen the dancers’ time to surround and imprison Leila and Nadir.

When one attends a Zandra Rhodes “Pearl Fishers”  production, one first notices the fore-curtain that contains three large sketches of pearl fishers standing on wooden platforms erected in the sea, long poles in hand to assist with their oyster culture.  (I have always imagined the androgynously dressed fisher closest to the audience to be an homage to Zandra Rhodes herself. )

When Conductor Karen Keltner arrives to lead the San Diego Opera Orchestra in the opera’s prelude, the curtain rises to reveal the silhouettes in the distance of working pearl fishers on their platforms in the sun’s reddish glare, actively engaged in their trade.  I have only the vaguest idea of the techniques that Sri Lankans use to fish for pearls, but Rhodes famously visited that country in preparation for this production, leading me to believe that there is some authenticity in this image.

[Below: Zandra Rhodes’ Act II sets, Leila’s bedchambers.  Edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Soon, Malcolm MacKenzie arrives to encourage the election of a village leader (a responsibility he readily accepts).  The Malashock Dance troupe, arriving amidst gold and red pagoda umbrellas, establishes the Orientalism of the setting with an athletic ballet.  MacKenzie’s light baritone is well-suited to the role of Zurga.

The constant flow of Bizet’s melodic line is joined with a myriad of delights that Rhodes and Sinclair have conceived.  The procession of Leila and the high priest Nourabad is led by a group of women whose use of red streamers catches the attention of the villagers (and the  audience).

Castronovo was not this production’s original Nadir, but it works so perfectly with him, that the production seems to celebrate him.  His beautiful French-style head tones in the great aria Je crois entendre encore were complemented by the imaginative way the stage was set for the aria – when Nadir sings in the Rhodes production, the heavens themselves seem fixated on the event (and the view we have of the firmament changes between the first and second verses).  In this production, the first and second acts are melded together. So, Nadir’s dream sequence occurs first before the curtain, then, with Nadir at the footlights, Leila appears through the scrim and their duet occurs beneath a starry canopy. Castronovo’s and Siurina’s voices blend resplendently in their duet.

[Below: Zurga (Malcolm MacKenzie), has set fire to the Pearl Fishers village to effect the escape of Nadir and Leila; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

“Pecheurs de Perles” is yet another opera – we recently have used the examples of Bellini’s  “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” and “Norma” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” on these reviews – in which an important woman is closely but ineffectively guarded by men, so that a heroic suitor manages to infiltrate the compound in which the woman is kept.  In “Norma”, of course, Norma and Pollione are captured and condemned to die and the opera ends.  In “Pecheurs” Nadir and Leila are captured and condemned to die, but have a powerful accomplice, Zurga, who engineers their escape (and, in this restoration of the original ending, gives his life in consequence).

The final scene, although, by reputation, the least satisfactory dramatically, does have a logic to it in the Rhodes-Sinclair reading of it.  Zurga, the person to whom the village has entrusted its leadership, has become the defender of the couple who knowingly have subverted their society’s rules, and himself destroys the village so as to effect the escape of the lawbreakers. In this scene, the flames that consume the village, also frame the scene of the inevitable retribution that Zurga suffers at the hands of those he betrayed.

The current revival of “Pecheurs de Perles” seems to be increasing in intensity.  New performances of this production in Washington DC, Denver and Montreal; and of a rival production at the Chicago Lyric during the 2008-09 season, seem to suggest that many more people in the 21st century will come to know this opera, and discover that they like it.