Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Passionate “Pearl Fishers” – June 29, 2019

The Santa Fe Opera, for the second time in its history, presented Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, beautifully sung by its four principal artists.

Corinne Winters’ Leila

Maryland soprano Corinne Winters performed the role of the priestess Leila, skillfully negotiating the coloratura runs of O dieu Brahma! and enlisting her beautiful lyric voice for the luxuriously melodic Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre.

[Below: the priestess Leila (Corinne Winters) is arrested for being in the presence of a man; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This is my fourth review of a Winters performance, each one exhibiting another facet of her dramatic, linguistic and vocal versatility.

I reported on her performance as Mélisande in Zurich [Review: Imbrailo, Winters and Ketelsen Effective in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Psychoanalytic Take on “Pelléas et Mélisande” – Zurich Opera, May 8, 2016] and the role of Janacek’s Katya, sung in Czech [See Review: Corinne Winters’ Searing Performance as Seattle Opera’s Katya Kabanova, February 26, 2017 ].

Leila is her second assignment at Santa Fe Opera. She appeared five seasons ago as Ching-ling, Madame Sun Yat-Sen [Review: Santa Fe Opera Shows its Mettle in Mounting Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” – July 30, 2014], which she performed in Mandarin Chinese.

Ilker Arcayürek’s Nadir

Turkish-born Austrian tenor Ilker Arcayürek displayed an affinity with the French technique of leggiero singing, with a superb performance of Nadir’s hauntingly beautiful aria Je crois entendre encore.

[Below: Nadir (Ilker Arcayürek, left) observes the veiled priestess Leila (Corinne Winters, center); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This was my first opportunity to hear Arcayürek, whose credentials include winning Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy International Art Song Contest, being a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and also a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Arcayürek’s polished performance exuded charm, and he received an ovation from the sophisticated Santa Fe Opera audience.

Anthony Clark Evans’ Zurga

Kentucky baritone Anthony Clark Evans brought vocal power to the role of Zurga, and was impressive in the iconic duet Au fond du temple saint with Arcayürek’s Nadir, as he was when singing Zurga’s plaintive aria L’orage s’est calmé.

I had reported on Evans’ strong showing as Sharpless at the San Francisco Opera [Review: A Transcendent “Madama Butterfly”, San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2016]. As a result of his success in that Puccini role, he will be returning to the San Francisco Opera for the Fall 2019 revival of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.

Robert Pomakov’s Nourabad

Canadian bass Robert Pomakov sang the unsympathetic role of the high priest Nourabad with authority.

[Below: Robert Pomakov as the high priest Nourabad; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Over the past decade, I have reviewed eight previous performances by this always dramatically persuasive artist in both principal and comprimario roles over the past decade at Houston Grand Opera, and the Los Angeles and San Francisco Operas, including his participation at the Santa Fe Opera in the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”.

Maestro Timothy Myers and the Musical Performance

Kansas Maestro Timothy Myers conducted the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus (the latter using Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists) in a luminous performance of Bizet’s exotic and romantically melodious score. Iowa director Susanne Sheston was Chorus Master.

Lee Blakeley’s Production and Shawna Lucey’s Revival Direction

Texas director Shawna Lucey’s staged the 2019 “Pearl Fishers” revival which utilizes the sets and costumes and a substantial amount of the stage directions of the late English director Lee Blakeley.

[Below: Stage director Shawna Lucey; edited image, based on a Santa Fe Opera YouTube video.]

Lucey’s emphases differed from Blakeley’s in important details. (My thoughts of these differences are contained in the “Further Thoughts” paragraph below, rather than in the main body of this review of the 2019 revival.)

Last year, I had praised Shawna Lucey’s re-evaluation of a Rossini comedy in her revival of what I regarded as a problematic 2004 production. [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delightful “Italian Girl in Algiers” – July 25, 2018].

In her director’s notes for this 2019 revival, Lucey showed that her interests and emphases, meritorious in themselves, were in a different direction than Blakeley’s. Lucey’s message relates to community leaders’ failures (Zurga, Nourabad) to take responsibility for their actions, whereas the priestess Leila, although violating her vow, owns up to her transgression when she is caught.

[Below: Nadir (Ilker Arcayürek, left) wonders about the identity of the veiled priestess (Corinne Winters, center); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Further Thoughts on Staging “The Pearl Fishers”

The late Lee Blakeley spoke extensively about the production in a 2015 interview that I conducted of him [Mounting the Big Shows: An Interview with Director Lee Blakeley]. It was his intent to highlight the Sri Lankan society that existed under colonial rule in 1863 (the year that “Pearl Fishers” was first performed) . Jean-Marc Puissant’s sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes were designed to help realize Blakeley’s concept.

I was among the many reviewers who praised that 2012 production [The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012 ].

Lucey’s shift of emphasis from the geopolitical consequences of 19th century colonialism to the moral and psychological makeup of the opera’s four characters creates a pronounced degree of dissonance with the production’s message, as envisioned by Blakeley, Puissant and Reiffenstuel.

I have reviewed four separate productions of “Pearl Fishers” over the past 15 years, including those by Nicolas Joel [Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera – October 16, 2008 ], Zandra Rhodes [Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers” – May 9, 2008] and Peggy Woolcock [Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Beautifully Sung “Pearl Fishers” – October 15, 2017].

What I find fascinating about this opera and so many others of the mid- and late- 19th century French operas is how many different ways one can present a story.


I enthusiastically recommend the four performances of the four principal singers and the orchestra and chorus, both for the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.