MD Theatre Guide: Virginia Opera’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ at GMU

This past Sunday I attended a performance of the Virginia Opera’s The Pearl Fishers at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia. The Virginia Opera is in town for this weekend only, performing Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at GMU.


Most known for his masterpiece, Carmen, Bizet composed The Pearl Fishers at the young age of 24. Not only was it unusual that he composed an opera at such a young age, it is even more impressive that the music has nuggets, or should I say pearls, of pure music genius. In what could be considered the biggest loss to opera music, Bizet passed away at the age of 37. Perhaps this loss could be compared to the loss of the composer of RENT, Jonathan Larson who left the musical theatre world too soon. Was RENT just the beginning of ground-breaking musicals for Larson? And was Carmen just the beginning of opera standards for Bizet?

Set in Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka, off the coast of India, The Pearl Fishers tells the story of two fisherman, Nadir (Chad Johnson) and Zurga (David Pershall). These two men, who are best friends, both happen to fall in love with the same woman, named Leila (Heather Buck). Over time Leila chooses Nadir over Zurga, who is the elected leader. To make matters worse, because Nadir had relations with Leila who is a priestess, Zurga is supposed to execute his best friend according to the rules of their society. Zurga is faced with the decision to uphold the laws of their society and religion or let Nadir live and love as he chooses. With libretto by Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon, the message of The Pearl Fishers was relevant when it first premiered in 1863. And now almost 150 years later, the struggle continues in the fight to have the choice of who we love and who we would like to share our lives with.

Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the Virginia Opera’s The Pearl Fishers clearly focused their efforts on telling the story primarily through the music and libretto. Rather than having grand sets, lavish costumes, and dazzling lighting effects, the director chose to let the music and libretto speak for itself. This is rather a double-edged sword since one could argue that having a good number of the solos in front of a red stage curtain as letting the audience focus on the music, while others might consider the lack of setting quite dull.

What truly brought the opera to life was, in fact, the large chorus, the talented leads, and the superb Virginia Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Anne Manson.

The large chorus added much excitement whenever they were onstage. The stylistic movement and staging by Mr. Thompson was interesting and appropriate to the piece. The sound of the chorus was one of strength and passion. Unfortunately, a few of the members of the chorus would get too passionate and sing too loud, creating an uneven mix during a few portions. The dancers also helped to tell the story with ritual dances to drive away evil spirits. What made it interesting was how the dancers placed great emphasis on movements that involved stomping their feet or digging their feet into the ground, much like the style of African dance.

Baritone David Pershall clearly understood his role as Zurga, the elected leader or “king.” With his strong posture, masculine walk, and commanding voice, there was no mistake that he was the leader. Pershall got to share the most famous piece of music from the opera, “Au fond du temple saint,” with the very talented and handsome Tenor Chad Johnson (Nadir). This famous duet is six minutes of Bizet’s tuneful melody, which is pure genius. The only thing more beautiful than the melody is the priestess Leila. Heather Buck does a wonderful job at being mysterious as she often hides her face beneath a veil. Leila, however, reveals everything to Nadir, creating a bond that only death can take away. The purity of her voice alone is enough to make the men fall in love with her. Heather Buck’s amazing high notes seemed to reach the stars, twinkle, and then come back down to heaven on earth. The cast is nicely rounded off with Nathan Stark as Nourabad, the high priest.

There’s about 50 people total in the cast with a live orchestra the same size. The exquisite Virginia Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Anne Manson, did a fabulous job at not rushing the music and accenting the notes in all the right places. Highlights of the opera included the opening of Act III, Zurga’s “O Nadir, tendre ami” and Nadir’s aria “Je crois entendre encore.”

Mr. Thompson did a fine job at directing Bizet’s opera and will be in DC next year to direct the world premiere of his new play, Mary T. and Lizzy K. at Arena Stage. As for the Virginia Opera, they have a wonderful season planned, including Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, A Streetcar Named Desire by Andre Previn, and The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Overall, the Virginia Opera is successful in delivering the message of The Pearl Fishers, which is to ask oneself, does modern religion and rules matter more than accepting love in any form.

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