Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pearl Fishers, a review

Reader Sara West has sent parsifal's an excellent review on the Lyric's Pearl Fishers.

Bizet’s Pearl Fishers at the Chicago Lyric Opera
By “Sara West”

He is better known for his Carmen as everyone routinely points out, but youthful Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a gem which had initially impressed only a select few of the likes of Hector Berlioz. Even though the work was eventually rescued from oblivion and entered the repertoire, it is not performed as often as its intellectual sibling. Is this due to the fact that its original manuscript is not extant which forces conductors to deal with often staggering difficulties involving its restoration, especially of its orchestration? Or did the savagery of producers past deal it a near-fatal blow comparable to what Mozart’s Così fan tutte endured for over 100 years? Could its immediately detectable strong influences from Chopin, Beethoven, and early Wagner have been its undoing of sorts? If so, this would be coupled with the fact that the work never rises to Carmen’s daring, pioneering, arguably even revolutionary heights, whose impact can rival artistic productions like von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel. The Pearl Fishers is perhaps too static dramatically, lacking in credible tension. Its story too is deemed unlikely and is mostly a reflection of its contemporary audience’s love for escapism exemplified in the production of exotic romances whose creators awkwardly matched them with exquisite music. To quote the inimitable Anna Russell, the pairing of Pearl Fishers with Bizet’s music is “one of those marriages you often see between a gorgeous, big, voluptuous lady to a little toothpick of a man.”

Chicago Lyric’s revisit of Bizet’s “other opera,” comes after a hiatus of more than a decade to ponder the above questions offering a thoughtful, even credible re-reading of the work. It is produced by Nicolas Joël (of Opéra National de Paris fame), directed by Herbert Kellner, and features an all-American cast. John Mauceri is on the podium, who also undertook the painstaking task of reworking the restored opera’s orchestration, mostly by thinning it out to make it congruent with its surviving portions. The four singers have equally immersed themselves in the work making a case for the production’s proposed interpretation. The result is a spectacular success reflecting the principals’ talent, impeccable training, musicianship, as well as their uncommon understanding of the work, its historical context, even contemporary theoretical approaches to cultural anthropology. Last but not least, the production is a model of collegiality and of the right approach to music interpretation.

Despite a single online anal-retentive review by a blogger whose URL shall remain unnamed, all other reviewers gave Chicago’s Pearl Fishers a two-thumbs up. I have to agree with them. The singing was superb by absolutely everyone, but the stars were undeniably Eric Cutler and Nathan Gunn as Nadir and Zurga. Their duet “Au fonds du temple saint,” which is the highlight of the opera, its theme recurring throughout, deservedly brought the house down. Besides their impeccable technique and great singing, Cutler and Gunn approached their roles respectfully and with sensitivity, paying attention to detail, and created three-dimensional characters as they explored the issue of friendship and male bonding. Cutler in particular embarked on the difficult task of working on his voix mixte to produce the floating sound, a trademark of French opera, that he successfully blended with his big, full lyric sound. His rendition of the aria “Je crois entendre encore” was another highlight of the evening. My praise for the two leading male characters should not overshadow the achievement of Nicole Cabell, the wonderful lyric soprano who was cast as Leila. She is a singer to watch with a radiant, rich tone and received a rousing ovation after her interpretation of “Comme autrefois.” Opera critics have already praised the sonorous sound of bass-baritone Christian Van Horn who was cast in the thankless role of Nourabad. I was particularly impressed by the orchestra and the chorus, the latter being in my opinion even superior to the Met’s.

Production design and costumes were a true feast of color, very impressive, and convincing of Bizet’s largely imaginary setting. The only complaint I have is about the stage director’s odd overlook of choreography: in Act I, the opera opens to the villagers dancing on the shore, and I really wish the director had borrowed heavily from last year’s McVicar’s Bollywood-inspired Giulio Cesare, annoying and overrated Danielle De Niese notwithstanding. As the production currently stands, the chorus dances in circles as though they are preschoolers in kindergarten, not to mention the curious version of Greek hasapiko in which one of the groups engages.

Overall, a very enjoyable production, a great, solid cast, and even a great, sophisticated and courteous audience that could teach a thing or two to several patrons of the Met. Lyric Opera’s program is also far superior to its brochure-quality and poorly organized and written Met counterpart, but I would strongly advise everyone to download the Chicago Lyric’s podcasts with in depth analysis of each production and panel interviews of the cast and conductor.

Appendix (the story for the unwashed)

Set in an imaginary Ceylon, we partake of the everyday (NOT!) life, customs, perils, and psychopath obsessions of fictitious and everyday (definitely NOT!) psychopath Hindu pearl fishers from a single village. They elect Zurga (baritone Nathan Gunn) as their leader and declare their allegiance to him. Everyone is unpleasantly surprised and curiously inclined to execute on the spot a presumed stranger (did anyone say psychopaths?), surely an unwise move given that their economy is primarily based on the very dangerous occupation of diving for pearls. And believe me, diversifying said economy would develop tourism, admittedly a crunchy move and wise choice that would bring wealth, hopefully wisdom, longer life-expectancy, and would have spared everyone involved (including the audience) of unnecessary stress. But I digress. In the nick of time, Zurga recognizes his dear friend Nadir (tenor Eric Cutler), apparently the only somewhat forward-looking and adventurous of the lot, who has returned after years of unclear adventures. The chorus gone, Zurga and Nadir fondly recall (are you ready for this cliché?) how they both fell in love at first sight with a mystery beautiful woman at the temple of Brahma. Hit duet between tenor and baritone (“Au fond du temple saint”) ensues, undeniably the greatest point of the opera and the best joint wet dream set to music (yeah, I know, I’m not particularly romantic, shame on me!). Back then, they had both sworn to forget her for the sake of their friendship.

Enter Nourabad (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn), il Gran Sacerdote di Balo. Yes, I know, this is from another opera, but this is how I call every annoying real or fictitious high-ranking priest, including the pope, especially the current one who held the questionably prestigious office of Gran Inquisitore. Nourabad brings in a veiled young priestess (lyric soprano Nicole Cabell) by the name of Leila (wait a sec! Isn’t that a Turkish/Arabic name?), who will spend a year with them, praying to Brahma for the lives of the pearl fishers (why they couldn’t just sell out to hotel developers is still beyond me!). Her office is the annoying local’s version of a proto-corporate career, seeing that at the end of the year she gets a performance-based bonus, i.e. a precious pearl as dowry, a kick upstairs of sorts to New Trophy Wifeland. The predictable catch: she has to remain a virgin during this time (did anyone say more cliches?), or il Gran Sacerdote will execute her. As the audience has already preidicted, double-digit IQ, holders excepted she recognizes Nadir among the crowd as the guy she fell in love with a while ago, he recognizes her voice, conflict lurks. See, she’s that mystery woman at the temple of Brahma. Recovering her composure, she joins Sacerdote’s orientation program, rolls up her sleeves, and goes straight to work. As she pulls aside her veil, Nadir, who has somehow entered the temple to sleep (WTF?!), recognizes her, the two join in a duet, curtain falls, end of Act I, and Aristotle’s rigid criteria for the structure of good drama have been more or less satisfied.

Continuing his orientation program, Nourabad takes Leila to yet another temple, unasailable due to its location on a rocky hilltop, which is guarded by more annoying priests. Before he leaves, Leila informs him, totally unnecessarily, that when she was a child, she had rescued some unknown dude from a gang of evildoers putting her life in terrible danger. Dude expressed his gratitude by giving her his necklace. Nourabad conveniently leaves, but he must have been something of a voyeur, otherwise why would he keep watch of Leila who’s about to go to bed, if he didn’t want to see her naked? Predictably Nadir braves all perils, does some heroic rock-climbing, and comes to the temple, and being a male chauvinist pig who does not support his significant other’s quest to establish her career and get promotion before they tie the knot, declares his ardent passion for Leila. She plays warm coquette at first but eventually yields to passion. Lovey-dovey duet ensues, the two are interrupted by killjoy Nourabad who, probably enraged he missed the nude show, brings in the whole village, guards, priests, what have you, to lynch the couple. Don’t ask me if they, too, engage in rock climbing. Zurga comes in to remind everyone of his constitutional rights to decide the couple’s faith. His initial plan is to help them escape, but Nourabad, ever the latent voyeur, pulls off Leila’s veil. Obviously Zurga recognizes the woman he, too, fell in love with, is jealous like a Sicilian or Calabrian, and condemns them both to death. Curtain falls.

Act III finds Zurga repenting for his haste to order his best friend’s execution. Leila comes in to plead for her lover’s life, also predictably offers herself as victim instead. Oddly enough Zurga who has just acknowledged (why?) that his friend didn’t break his vow (how so?), is upset that Leila loves Nadir and not him (what did he think was going on in Act II?), so he wants to go on with the executions (I would call this manic depression, but well…). Leila curses him, then gives her necklace to one of the guards to take to her mother once she’s dead. Zurga, who (surprise! Surprise!) is really the mystery dude once pursued by the evildoers, recognizes the necklace he gave to Leila, probably because he was myopic and could not see it when she wore it. In the final scene of the opera, the villagers have already lit the bonfire and are waiting eagerly to barbecue hero and heroine together. Zurga rushes to announce their village is on fire. Chorus exits in chaos, he reveals all to the couple, including that he became an arsonist to rescue them. Goodie-goodies leave in a hurry, Zurga puts his life in the hands of the gods and laments the loss of his love. As he kneels, Nourabad comes out of nowhere and beheads him. Curtain falls, great round of applause.

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