Washington Times: Virginia Opera’s bright, affecting ‘Pearl Fishers’ at GMU

The Virginia Opera’s current production of Georges Bizet’s early opera, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) at GMU’s Center for the arts this weekend was a delightful surprise. Spare, yet colorful, active without seeming too busy, the production was given a further boost by good to great soloists in the key roles.

Pearl Fishers is one of those operas, like Mozart’s Magic Flute, where you have to suspend disbelief a bit in order to get into the music and the art. Its plot is fairly simple. Two old friends, Zurga and Nadir, meet again after a long estrangement over a mysterious woman named Leila, whom neither of them has ever actually met. They renounce forever all thought of the woman who came between them and re-pledge their undying friendship. But when one of them chances to meet, greet, and fall hopelessly in love with the mystery woman, all bets are off as the opera heads toward a melodramatic and tragic ending.

The opera’s plot actually sounds like many a tragic opera set in Renaissance Europe. But this one takes plays in far off Ceylon, the island nation renamed Sri Lanka in our own time. A bit like David Lean’s beautiful but too-westernized film “Dr. Zhivago” in the 1960s, both Bizet and his librettists imposed Romantic European values on The Pearl Fishers’ native characters. That said, this sort of thing was okay in 19th century, still-colonial Europe and if you take it in that vein, you can enjoy the opera as a Western love story with exotic costumes.

The production’s stage director Tazewell Thompson seems to have taken this notion at face value, guiding this homegrown Virginia Opera production with sensitivity to the story and with attention to its reimagined if fanciful period detail. In other words, he takes Bizet’s world at face value. In so doing, he elevates the quality of this production a notch above the Washington National’s spectacular, almost cartoonish, primary color-washed production just a few seasons back.

Both Mr. Thompson and the Virginia Opera were considerably aided in their efforts by the deviously effective sets created by Donald Eastman for this production. Viewing preview stills, we were prepared to be disappointed by Mr. Eastman’s spare, wood-dominated fishing dock backdrop. Set atop undulating wooden planks meant to resemble waves lapping gently against the shore, the virtual fishing dock that dominates visually alternately becomes a speaker’s podium, a temple, and a love nest in the audience’s imagination.

In a vague way, all these planks reminded us of “the machine” the Met employed in its most recent re-imagination of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. Looking like a Trex deck in perpetual motion, “the machine” was actually a cleverly designed series of interlocking screens upon which played the Met’s projected scenery.

But Mr. Eastman’s planks remain relatively static throughout this production of The Pearl Fishers, and the projected scenery comes from our own imaginations which are given a considerable assist by Merrily Murray-Walsh’s colorful, tropical, tribal costuming which creates silhouettes of recognizably Sri Lankan and Indian fashions while still rendering the characters’ appearances both ancient and exotic.

At least one critic has sneered at both the effect and its authenticity, but he misses the point. Ms. Murray-Walsh is not reflecting current or past realities in her costuming. Rather, she’s evoking precisely a fantasy world that Bizet had never visited but had often imagined with his own 19th century sensibilities.

In the end, though, we usually go to the opera for the music and the drama. Both were in plentiful evidence during Friday evening’s opening performance. The opera’s characters burst forth in full Romantic glory, transforming this little fairy tale into something that became surprisingly realistic and believable.

As Zurga, the man elected tribal chief in the opera’s opening scene, baritone David Pershall radiated vocal confidence and decisiveness. While not overpowering, his instrument was clear and strong, enabling him to project the authority as well as the self-doubt and vulnerability that make his tormented character seem far more real than the opera itself.

As his sometime best pal Nadir, tenor Chad Johnson also had many fine moments, but his intonation seemed uncertain at times and his voice occasionally strained. This was distracting on occasion. But Mr. Johnson seemed to warm to the occasion after the first act, helping balance his efforts over all.

In the small but key role of the tribe’s “enforcer,” Nourabad, bass Nathan Stark was particularly adept at using his dark instrument to create a sense of menace and foreboding once he’s discovered the forbidden love between Leila and Nadir.

But the belle of the ball as it were was soprano Heather Buck whose brittle yet deeply moving interpretation of the tormented Leila provided the real romantic ballast for this production. Ms. Buck was just as impressive in this role as she was as the haunting La Princesse in last season’s shockingly great Virginia Opera production of Phillip Glass’ Orphée.

Beautiful, elegant, and possessed of an almost magically expressive and wide ranging voice, she created a Leila who, like Homer’s Helen of Troy, became the kind of goddess who could topple an empire without ever intending to do so. She embodies the kind of love and goodness that can spin out of control, creating the kind of tragedy that one could never imagine. Ms. Buck’s exquisite interpretation of her character is the heart and soul of this genuinely moving production.

Ably supporting the primary cast members were the Virginia Orchestra and the company’s chorus, all under the baton of conductor Anne Manson.

The chorus, larger than usual for this production, sang lustily and well in the opera’s frequent crowd scenes, although on occasion their timing and diction still seemed in need of a bit of help.

Ms. Manson’s conducting seemed workmanlike though not particularly inspired. And yet she kept the tempos crisp and clean, and brought out the opera’s key musical motifs with great skill, adding to the intellectual depth of the production.

Sadly, as is usually the case with Northern Virginia productions of this company, the Virginia Opera was in and out of town this weekend. But if you missed The Pearl Fishers and don’t mind a bit of a drive, the production heads next to the capital city of Richmond as the company stages the opera’s final two performances in that city’s spectacularly restored Carpenter Theatre complex.

Rating: ***
(Three stars out of four.)

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