So what was French composer Georges Bizet up to before he staked his claim to immortality on “Carmen” shortly before he died in 1875? A dozen years before, the 25-year-old Bizet was warming up to scale the “Carmen” heights with another opera, “The Pearl Fishers,” a beautifully staged production that is launching Virginia Opera’s 35th Richmond season this weekend in the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage.
Don’t expect an operatic hit parade in the “Carmen” mold.
“The Pearl Fishers” offers a big and enduring hit in “Au fond du temple saint,” the first-act friendship duet between two fishermen.
Never mind that this duet’s premise is silly.
Why would two sometimes estranged fishing buddies pledge their undying loyalty against onslaughts of romance with a mysteriously veiled priestess they’ve only glimpsed but never met?
Virginia Opera’s production isn’t telling, but baritone David Pershall and tenor Chad Johnson are turning “Au fond due temple saint” into a vocal blend so haunting that it sweeps all objections before it.
This “Pearl Fishers” offers other lovely tunes lovingly rendered as well.
And they get their due not only from Pershall and Johnson but especially from soprano Heather Bock, who, as the Brahman priestess Leila, sings like an angel.
Unlike many operas, “The Pearl Fishers” is tightly focused on what turns into a love triangle involving Johnson, Pershall and Bock. Bass Nathan Stark finds a few moments to shine as the high priest of Brahma, but he’s mainly a functional character.
The 36-voice chorus, augmented by eight dancers, has the force of a fifth character as it comments on and reacts to all the melodrama around it.
“The Pearl Fishers” is ostensibly set in long-ago Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), but it’s really moored in European romantic sensibility just as “The Mikado” is moored in Victorian English values that have little to do with its supposed setting in Japan.
The “Pearl Fishers” problems lie not in Virginia Opera’s production, which is knowingly directed by Tazewell Thompson and sensitively conducted by Anne Manson, but in the shoddy libretto Bizet was ordered to set to music.
An often dreamlike first act yields to an overheated second act in which all the melodramatic stops are pulled out, but to little credible effect. The conflict between the three principal characters in the late going doesn’t ring psychologically true, and the ending is weak.
However, “The Pearl Fishers” looks as great as it sounds.
Donald Eastman’s abstracted nautical scenery includes a floor that undulates to suggest the sort of ocean wave these fishermen encounter. Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes blend beautifully and look especially nice, thanks to Robert Wierzel’s skill at sculpting figures in light, especially all the figures in that grand chorus.
With the seldom-performed “Pearl Fishers,” Virginia Opera’s 2012-13 Richmond season is off to an especially fresh start.