Fairfax Times: ‘Pearl Fishers’ make way to Fairfax

“A world where the erotic, the indulgent, the uninhibited dance boldly with rituals, taboos and superstitions that dare not be transgressed; a dreamland where the fantastical, the ecstatic, the rhapsodic co-exist recklessly. It is a veritable feast for eye and ear where the imagination can, and should, take flight.”

This is how director Tazewell Thompson describes an approaching Virginia Opera premiere creation.

Now, bundle in a lush South Asian location to set the scene for a musically dramatic tale of male friendship tested by forbidden love with a mysterious woman. All this is explored in the upcoming “The Pearl Fishers” by French composer Georges Bizet coming to the George Mason University Center for the Arts next weekend.

Let’s use some lyrics to spread around the spicy taste of “The Pearl Fishers.” “Love takes our hearts by storm, and turns us into enemies!….No, let nothing part us! … Let us swear to remain friends.” And these lyrics are sung by the two male leads to each other as they discover their mutual yearnings for a woman.

“The Pearl Fishers” takes place in a time when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, a great source of natural pearls. The story centers on two friends, Zurga, the king of the pearl fishers, and Nadir, both infatuated with the same mysterious woman, Leila. They encounter a veiled princess who is under an oath of chastity. Nadir realizes the veiled woman is really Leila. They have a love affair which is discovered; their punishment is to be death. Do they escape? That can be best discovered at the performance.

Thompson spoke vividly of the production with “a glorious score, that is absolutely magnificent…the music is so seductive and lush.” The 30-member cast includes principal singers “with astounding voices and a chorus that is absolutely fantastic and outstanding.”

Thompson said the entire production team is “approaching ‘The Pearl Fishers’ with passion, precision and loving care.”

A key theme of the opera is the question, What is more lasting, friendship or love? Can someone really make and keep a pact not to pursue a possible love, “in order to preserve a friendship?” noted Thompson.

Thompson has produced and directed more than 60 opera and theater productions. His production of “Porgy and Bess” for the New York City Opera received Emmy nominations for Best Classical Production and Best Director. His world premiere play “Mary T. & Lizzie K” will premiere at DC’s Arena Stage in March 2013.

The Virginia Opera’s production of “The Pearl Fishers” includes the debut of conductor Anne Manson. Manson is distinguished for being one of an early coterie of women conductors of major orchestras. In an interview, Manson described keenly how operas such as “The Pearl Fishers” can draw in audiences with its “beautiful, lush music and rhythmic pulse to lift the audience up. It is mesmerizing. It is incredibly dramatic and gripping. You always want to know what happens next.”

The featured cast includes international opera soprano Heather Buck as the mysterious one. Buck was seen in Virginia Opera’s recent production of “Orphée.” Veterans of opera, Tenor Chad A. Johnson and baritone David Pershall, play her two suitors struggling with their own friendship.

Opera is not just voices and music, Donald Eastman is the set designer. He has worked with theater companies including an upcoming project; “My Fair Lady,” for D.C.’s Arena Stage. Merrily Murray-Walsh, a veteran theatrical costume designer, promises magical looks and excitement with shapes, materials and colors inspired from India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

“The Pearl Fishers” is part of the “First of Firsts” series, a program designed to bring new Virginia Opera productions to audiences and bring new audiences to the opera. The performance showcases the early talents of Bizet before his sumptuous “Carmen” made him a more well-known name. First performed nearly a century-and-a-half ago, the production is two hours in length.

“The Pearl Fishers” will be performed in French with English supertitles projected above the stage. The Orchestra for this Virginia Opera production is provided by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Each performance will feature a free 30-minute pre-opera discussion by Virginia Opera’s Dr. Glenn Winters.

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