Review: Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera, Chicago – October 16, 2008

For Lyric Opera’s 1997-98 season Nicolas Joel created a production of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” in which Paul Groves and Gino Quilico played the male lead roles, with sets created by Hubert Monloup. Eleven seasons later, the Joel production was revived, with extensive revisions. Scott Marr of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center created new sets designed to evoke “the color and the heat of Ceylon”, as well as “Hinduism and the tribal aspect”. He also designed new costumes for the principals.

Joel’s stage direction for the production was also rethought, with Herbert Kellner seeking to create a new “movement vocabulary” for the chorus and principals.

The sets and costumes were physically attractive. The production is unlike the psychedelic, often whimsical, and always exotic conception of set designer Zandra Rhodes and stage director Andrew Sinclair for the San Diego Opera-Michigan Opera Theater production that already has been seen in several North American cities and is scheduled to travel to even more.

Lyric Opera’s sets are like postcards displaying the human activity on land and sea along a tropical shoreline. They closely follow the general specifications for sets that are outlined in the opera’s libretto.

The opera has proven to be very popular with audiences in the 21st century, with expansive melodies and a fairy tale plot, in which at least the two lovers whose romance propels the story have a happy ending, although one tempered by the sacrificial death of a dear friend. I suspect it is also one that many operatic managements like, as it nicely fits younger voices, early in their careers, needs only three principals, a comprimario basso, and an orchestra of reasonable size. Few opera companies bust their budgets because of performances of “Pecheurs de Perles”.

For contemporary opera audiences, what is best known about the “Pearl Fishers” is the duet between Nadir and Zurga, Au fond du temple sainte, that occurs early in the first act, whose melody is reprised from time to time. But that is only one of many delights. There is very little that happens in the opera that is not enveloped in intoxicating melody.

I suspect most critics would peg “Pearl Fishers” as having a lightweight plot, although I believe it is more appropriate to describe it as an economical one. It’s “boy meets girl, overcomes some major difficulties to win her, lives happily ever after, with the one regret that the boy’s closest friend saves them from danger at the expense of that friend’s life”.  Much of what happens takes place before the opera begins, but we learn what we need to know through backstories, all sung to Bizet’s exotic melodies.

[Below: Zurga (Nathan Gunn, left) and Nadir (Eric Cutler ) sing the celebrated duet “Au fond du temple sainte”; edited image, based on Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The opera was written by Georges Bizet, early in his career, and is one of the “prodigy” operas by young twenty-somethings that have beaten all odds against the survival of any opera written at any time. Other prodigy operas this website is highlighting this month include Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”.

In the past few years, Bizet’s earlier works than his masterpiece “Carmen” have begun to be taken seriously. Now performance standards are influenced by recent scholarly editions of “Pearl Fishers” (the opera had suffered some unwarranted “improvements” by hacks after Bizet’s death).  John Mauceri, who conducted this revival, used an orchestral score more like what Bizet originally wrote than might have been heard in opera houses during most of the 20th century. Virtually no one would consider ending the opera with the inauthentic trio, composed two decades after Bizet’s death, that sounds like a copy-cat of the ensemble from the final scene of Gounod’s “Faust” .

The trio of principals all have Lyric Opera ties. Nicole Cabell, one of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center alumni, sings her first Leila. Nathan Gunn is a Lyric Opera favorite, reprising the role that he sang with William Burden in Philadelphia. Eric Cutler, who sang Ferrando in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” two seasons ago, returns to the Lyric.

[Below: Leila (Nicole Cabell) and Nadir (Eric Cutler) are reunited, despite the danger of the situation; edited image, based on Don Best photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Most of us know the story, but let’s go through it again anyway. The childhood friends Nadir and Zurga both fall in love with a woman, Leila, whom they have caught glimpse of in a sacred temple. Nadir disappears, and so does Leila. We learn that Nadir and Leila had become lovers, but circumstances doomed her to become a Hindu priestess. Meanwhile Zurga has become the leader of the village in which he and Nadir grew up.

As the story unfolds, we learn also that Leila and her family had rescued Zurga from death at the hands of enemies in the distant past and he gave the family a necklace, now in Leila’s possession, to call upon him in a life-threatening situation to return that favor. Nadir seeks to escape with Leila, but the two are captured. An angry Zurga is required by his office to condemn them to death, but he feels compassion for his old friend. Leila pleads to Zurga for Nadir’s life, and when he will not accede, she gives Zurga’s necklace to guards to take to her family.  Zurga instantly comprehends, regardless of his jealousy and his office, that he is obligated through his friendship with Nadir and his pledge to Leila’s family to effect their escape.

This story, I would submit, is rather more plausible than, say, that of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, of which I will have more to say later this month. It is instructive to see how opera had changed in the 82 years between Mozart’s opera of 1781 (even though written in Italian, it was created for a festival in Munich, using the talented and very avant-garde orchestra from the German town of Mannheim) and Bizet’s French opera of 1863.

Mozart was pushing the envelope on orchestration and dramatic construction of the opera. For much of the history of opera, composers were expected to alternate exposition – i.e., recitative, giving the audience information about the story – with arias that reflected on the character’s emotion at that moment.

Librettists usually wanted to maximize recitative to keep the story clear. Mozart fought his librettist (and his father) on how much recitative he felt needed to be cut to speed up an opera. By the time of Bizet, in the nation across the Rhine from Mannheim, the answer was to cut just about all of it.

All the exposition (the backstories) comes in the duet Au fond du temple sainte, in Leila’s Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre, and her conversation with Nourabad J’etais encore enfant, and (as confirmation of what Nadir was doing when he disappeared) Je crois entendre encore. 

[Below: Leila (Nicole Cabell) pleads with Zurga (Nathan Gunn) to save his best friend’s life; edited image, based on Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The opera management announced that Cabell was feeling ill, but would be singing anyway, but she performed admirably. Cutler, mysteriously costumed in a hunter’s garb topped with something that seemed to me like a Rastafarian wig, is one of the young tenors who promotes the voix mixte, the French style of singing high in the register that includes head tones. He was a brilliant Nadir.

Nathan Gunn has had enough experience as Zurga to show it off as a truly substantive role. His great soliloquy that begins the third act was performed with eloquence and emotion, displaying a mature baritone voice. Gunn, of course, is one of the modern opera singers who clearly knows his way around the gym, so the costumers shed any pretext of hiding his impressive physique, and he remained topless throughout the opera.

[Below: Zurga (Nathan Gunn) takes control of the situation, as Nadir (Eric Cutler) and Leila (Nicole Cabell) are placed under arrest at the top of the stairs; edited image, based on Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

This is the fourth performance of “Pearl Fishers” reviewed on this site, the others all utilizing the Zandra Rhodes sets and stage direction by Andrew Sinclair. Although there was much to admire about the Lyric Opera production, one missed the liveliness of Sinclair’s direction, including the use of San Diego’s Malashock Dancers, whose aggressive choreography integrates the ballet, as Sinclair does the chorus, into the opera’s action scenes.

For those able to schedule the final performances of this production, it is recommended for the consistently high quality of singing and attractive sets.