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Considering the popularity of "Carmen," you’d think that Georges Bizet’s other major opera, "The Pearl Fishers," would be at least vaguely familiar. Not really. Many longtime operagoers in this country have never heard, let alone seen, a production. Others know the opera only from this or that excerpt, notably the Act 1 "Pearl Fishers duet" for tenor and baritone.
The opera’s story hinges on our old pal, the love triangle. Zurga, the newly elected chief of a Ceylonese village of pearl divers, and his old friend, Nadir, in their youth were smitten by the same woman. She now reappears as Léïla, a veiled priestess brought in a for a village ceremony. Léïla and Nadir soon fall into each other’s arms, risking execution for impiety. Zurga must man up to ethical and romantic dilemmas and decide whether to condemn the lovers or help them escape. That basic story line is dressed up with the exoticism of the Asian locale and several ceremonial dance and/or choral numbers.
Narratively, "The Pearl Fishers" is clunky, at times almost grinding to a halt. The score by the 25-year-old Bizet is richly orchestrated and positively fecund with melody, if a bit cross-culturally wacky (South Asian fisher-folk doing Provençal dances?). Bizet provides show-stopper arias for all three principals, as well as the (semi-)familiar male duet (recurring as a leitmotif through the score) and the memorable Act 2 lovers’ duet "Dieu puissant, le voilà!"
Virginia Opera introduces "The Pearl Fishers" to its repertory in a production that’s visually arresting and generally well-sung, but musically and choreographically under-energized.
Conductor Anne Manson’s measured tempos give the opera’s three principal voices plenty of room for expression, phrasing and coloristic nuance, but also take away the rollicking quality of the show’s production numbers. Dance sequences are pretty earthbound – tight confines and a steeply raked set likely narrowed choreographer Matt Ferraro’s options; a larger-than-usual chorus is largely static during its numbers.
Heather Buck, the soprano who sang the role of La Princesse in last season’s Virginia Opera production of Philip Glass’ "Orphée," returns as Léïla, displaying a bright and flexible coloratura and deftly reconciling the character’s stylized priestess persona with the passionate woman within.
Tenor Chad Johnson takes on the punishing tenor role of Nadir gamely, riding the high-register roller-coaster aboard which Bizet straps the tenor with solid technique, if not ringing volume. That is supplied, in plenty, by baritone David Pearshall as Zurga; Pearshall nicely reins in his voice to complement Johnson’s in their duet, and similarly aims to blend in other ensembles. Bass Nathan Stark is a looming, ominous presence as the priest Nourabad.
The chorus is, or should be, a prominent and vivid character in "The Pearl Fishers." This production’s 36-voice chorus, prepared by Adam Turner, sounded rather shaky early in the first of two Richmond performances. The ensemble came together and gained some heft as the show progressed.
Stage director Tazewell Thompson, like choreographer Ferraro, appears to have addressed the problem of a crowded and raked stage with caution. The crowd doesn’t move much, and when it does so it’s in tight formation. Thompson’s treatment of more intimate scenes is unfussily genuine.
Donald Eastman’s set, a construct of blond wood fronting stylized rigging and fishing lines, has a raked and cobbled floor, suggestive of waves – a clean, uncluttered look, refreshingly devoid of "tropical" kitsch, but angled steeply enough to inhibit movement. Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh outfits all the non-priestly characters in South Asian garb that appears well-weathered by water, sun and sand; in this company, Léïla’s red priestess vestments flash almost like neon.
Conductor Manson obtained a warm-blooded and sonorous performance from the Virginia Symphony players in the pit. Flutist Debra Wendells Cross, oboists Sherie Lake-Aguirre and George Corbett and cellist Michael Daniels contributed fine solos.