One really can’t claim that Georges Bizet’s infrequently staged opera “The Pearl Fishers” is a spectacular jewel whose beauties have been hidden too long. But one also can’t deny that, with the help of a strong cast and production, it can be a quite satisfying and moving experience.
The Virginia Opera proved that point Saturday evening with the opening of its new production at the Harrison Opera House. Almost all elements were in alignment, creatively balanced with an emphasis on fine singing.
In the story’s love triangle, Leila, the Ceylonese priestess, has attracted the attentions of two pearl fishers, Nadir and Zurga. In the men’s duet, the opera’s best-known excerpt, they agree not to fight for her, placing their friendship above all else.
As Leila, soprano Heather Buck was captivating when she first appeared in a stunning red costume. Her singing soon matched the visual delight. Her lovely timbre floated easily up to high notes and through extensive embellishment.
If Bizet’s writing made her at times oddly coquettish, she also had more serious moments in which the depth of her emotion was clearly felt. Her story-telling in the second act was but one example of her expressive talent.
As Nadir, tenor Chad Johnson was a well-matched lover, both vocally and visually, making the lovers’ story believable and their impending deaths in the third act a real source of dramatic tension. Johnson’s pleasant tone sounded youthful, and it took on weight both for his emotional aria and to match others in ensemble.
Baritone David Pershall did not give Zurga full vocal strength at the start, when he became the pearl fishers’ leader. But act by act, his rich voice grew to become a dominant force. In the final act, both his aria and duet with Leila were so moving as to make his situation tragic, and perhaps even to explain his final actions.
The character of Nourabad appears too rarely to develop a personality, but bass Nathan Stark did what he could. He sounded fatherly in his first appearance with Leila and outraged after her fall from grace.
The unusually large chorus, prepared by Adam Turner, played an important part of the story, and both sounded and looked prepared for the task. Likewise, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra players in the pit were quite secure.
Conductor Anne Manson got a wide range of effect from the orchestra, from a carefully detailed chamber texture to an unforced power that could support the full cast. Only occasionally did she allow instruments to cover voices.
The visual world created by Donald Eastman had a minimum of detail, but the artistic suggestion of the locale was enough. Robert Wierzel’s lighting directed the attention where it needed to be.
Stage director Tazewell Thompson had a natural approach to movement, with purpose but not overdone. One might question his too-frequent choice to move the action in front of a plain red curtain as a lessening of the opera’s theatricality.
But overall, it was a very well-conceived production that was certainly worth the effort it took to create, and just as certainly worth the effort to go and experience.
© October 1, 2012