The Virginian-Pilot: Friends are tested in this rarely staged Bizet opera

These days, it’s so easy to collect “friends.” As simple as clicking a button on a Facebook page.

In Georges Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers,” with its island setting that appears timeless, friendship means much more.

“There are several themes in the story,” said Tazewell Thompson, the famed director behind the wheel of this season-opening Virginia Opera production. The tale features a love triangle, fugitive lovers, broken vows, lust for power and a wrenching choice between friendship and love.

“What is deeper, what is more important in life: love or friendship? I think that’s what’s tested in the opera the most,” Thompson said.

As written in 1863, the opera’s story takes place on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India. Here, men dive for pearls and fish for a living.

The story opens as Zurga is named “king” of a fishing village’s festival. His old pal, Nadir, shows up after spending a long period in the wilderness.

The two happily recall old times, including how each fell for the same young beauty. Each had promised to leave the girl alone and, in that way, preserve their friendship.

Enter Leila, the elusive beauty, who has arrived to be the festival’s veiled, virgin priestess who will pray for the fishermen’s safety during treacherous labors at sea.

Zurga doesn’t know that Nadir already broke the vow. Nadir acted on his passion, and Leila fell for him, too. Once arrived, Leila sees Nadir and their affair is soon reignited.

When Zurga learns about this, he must deal with his own jealousy and anger. He must make some hard decisions.

In today’s social-media world, “the use of the word ‘friend’ is very surface,” Thompson said. “In the time when this opera was written, and in certain parts of the world, a friend is someone who shows tremendous sympathy and empathy and is willing to lay down one’s life for that other person.

“That person is committed to the friend, and is loyal,” he said. “Love, on the other hand, changes.”

“To me, that’s at the heart of this opera: the power of friendship.”

Thompson has directed and/or produced more than 60 plays and operas for top companies worldwide. He directed the 1990 Virginia Stage Company production of August Wilson’s “Fences.”

He led a New York City Opera production of “Porgy and Bess” that aired on PBS’s “Live at Lincoln Center.” It earned him an Emmy nomination.

This production is his first encounter with Virginia Opera and his first time directing “The Pearl Fishers,” by Bizet, who is best known for “Carmen.”

Some critics have lauded the music in the infrequently produced “Pearl Fishers” and complained that the plot has holes. “I think it’s a wonderful story,” Thompson said. “To me, the story is very straightforward, simply told, but has a great deal of depth.”

But “it’s the music that affects me the most,” he said, and where he takes his cues as stage director. “The music in the opera tells you everything you need to know about the emotional life of the characters.”

A duet between the two friends, tenor and baritone, well known among opera fans, expresses tender, heartfelt devotion.

Thompson said the chorus’ music is “absolutely gorgeous. That tells you what their sustained emotion is about.”

Conductor Anne Manson, lauded by The New York Times for her “significant achievements in the international opera world,” will lead members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

“She’s quite extraordinary,” Thompson said of Manson. “She’s very meticulous. She tenderly coaxes out the very best from the singers and the chorus.”

Thompson immerses himself in projects, too, researching the characters, the historical background and the music. His approach with performers is to nurture rather than dictate.

“With Taz, it’s been such a fun rehearsal process,” said soprano Heather Buck, who plays Leila. “When he comes to rehearsal, he has ideas in mind. But he says things in a way that lets singers bring that into fruition.

“He has a very special way of allowing the dough to rise. He knows what he wants in terms of the story’s journey. It’s like cooking haute cuisine, and he allows the flavors to come out.”

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