The Pearl Fishers
by Georges Bizet
By Lori Dana
As autumn comes to a close in Chicago, the short, gray days make one wish to be whisked away for a respite in some tropical paradise. The Pearl Fishers does just that with its exuberant sets and costumes, and deeply romantic score. This exotic opera from the composer of Carmen, set in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), is the story of two boyhood friends, Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecień) and Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), and their unrequited love for a mysterious priestess, Leila (Marina Rebekah). The two men first encountered Leila on a trip to the city of Candi, where they observed her in the temple of Brahma and were captivated by her beauty. Knowing the pitfalls of loving the same woman, the two friends vowed to forget Leila for the sake of their lifelong friendship. Soon thereafter, the gregarious and popular Nadir leaves their village to pursue a life of adventure as a hunter. Zurga, left without his ally, begins to forge other bonds in the village, eventually becoming so highly esteemed that the villagers elect him as their King. This is the moment in which Bizet’s opera begins, as the newly crowned Zurga has his greatest moment eclipsed by the return of his friend, Nadir. It is also the occasion for one of the most exquisite duets in opera, the instantly recognizable “Au fond du temple saint”, as the old friends renew their vow to be faithful to each other until death. Of course, the idyllic moment cannot last. A yearly ceremony in which a virgin blesses the pearl fishers and prays for their protection brings Leila to the island, in the custody of the high priest Nourabad (Andrea Silvestrelli). Though veiled, when the priestess begins to sing her blessing Nadir recognizes her instantly, and his feelings for her come flooding back. In a series of sensuous encounters, it becomes clear that these two are deeply in love. Unfortunately, the vow of chastity Leila was bound to take before the blessing ceremony means that if the lovers are discovered, they will pay for their rapture with their lives.
Spectacular casting and richly detailed production design make The Pearl Fishers instantly engaging. The marvelous voices of Kwiecień and Polenzani are very well matched, although the tenor is definitely the more seasoned actor. Polenzani is currently at the zenith of his career as a singing actor, commanding the stage with charisma and vocal spectacle every time he appears. In the role of Nadir (as well as in his prior Lyric performance this year as the Duke in Rigoletto), Polenzani demonstrates his mastery of the romantic lead. Kwiecień, like Zurga, seems a bit wooden in contrast, although his voice is in fine form. Latvian soprano Marina Rebekah’s dark beauty and extraordinary vocal talents are perfectly cast as the alluring Leila, and long-time Lyric favorite Andrea Silvestrelli’s velvety bass grounds the otherwise volatile cast with its calm, comforting strength.
Against the rich, cultural beauty and commanding graphic sense brought to this production by esteemed British designer Zandra Rhodes, The Pearl Fishers has everything it needs to be an unforgettable dramatic experience. Some may think the intensely colored sets a bit over-the-top, but in truth they have just the right amount of grandeur for “grand opera”. Everything about The Pearl Fishers is lush and passionate. From the densely patterned batik-style backdrops, to the wildly colored palms; the cartoonish turquoise and ochre temple columns with their dancing white figures to the sparkling costumes, this production is a feast for all the senses. The lighting design of Lyric first-timer Ron Vodicka intensifies the mood even further. Moving from a warm pink that envelopes beach dancers in the opening scene, to deep blue during Nadir’s evening reflections (bringing out the burgundy, purple and olive tones in the set), and the deep gold to fuchsia transitions during Leila and Nadir’s passionate duet, Vodicka’s lighting enhances the visual acuity of every scene. In the French opera tradition, the dancers of the corps de ballet bring welcome action to the crowd scenes, thanks to the vibrancy and joy of John Malashock’s choreography. This opera is a welcome respite from current production design trends that seem to favor either stark, modern settings, or the grimy, mechanized complexity of steampunk environs. The Pearl Fishers is bright, beautiful, and engaging on many levels, not the least of which is Bizet’s gloriously romantic music, brilliantly performed as always, by the marvelous Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. As an alternative to predictably saccharine holiday fare, Lyric Opera’s The Pearl Fishers is a sumptuous and exotic performance of singular beauty that leaves audiences not merely satisfied, but exhilarated by its creative vision.
(“The Pearl Fishers,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 4 more performances only! Through December 10 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)
The Pearl Fishers production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi.