BWW Review: Winter Opera Brings Pearls to St. Louis

BWW Review: Winter Opera Brings Pearls to St. Louis

BWW Review: Winter Opera Brings Pearls to St. Louis

Sooner or later it had to happen. Somebody had to notice the similarities between pearl divers, who must free-dive as deep as one hundred feet, and opera singers, who must make one breath last to the very end of that bel canto cadenza. Well, in 1863 Georges Bizet and his librettists saw that link between these two crafts of gifted breathers and brought it to the stage in the opera Les pêcheurs de perles or The Pearl Fishers. Now Winter Opera has brought it to St. Louis in a lovely production that played January 26 and 28.

The 1863 premiere was young Bizet's first full-scale operatic production. It received generally negative reviews, though it was popular with the public. After lying rather dormant for some decades The Pearl Fishers has more recently become a familiar, if not too frequently produced, member of the operatic canon.

The story is set in a village of pearl divers in ancient times. The librettists first thought to place it in Mexico (a rich source of pearls at the time) but they finally decided on Ceylon as perhaps even more exotic. The village is ancient, the art of pearl diving is ancient, and the plot premise here is perhaps even more ancient-a love triangle.

We see the men of the village preparing to venture out onto the sea to risk their lives for pearls. They await a veiled priestess who will give a blessing on their venture to protect them from the dangers of the sea and its creatures. The men elect Zurga as their chief.

Nadir arrives, and we find that he and Zurga are lifelong friends.

Some time ago, in the city of Kandy, their friendship had been tested: both fell in love with the same beautiful girl, but the men had foresworn that love and pledged themselves to eternal friendship. Shamefully, Nadir had broken his pledge and pursued a romance with the girl.

The veiled priestess Leila arrives, and (whoever would have thought?) she is that very same girl from Kandy! The flame of old jealousy blazes again.

The four principal singers are well up to Winter Opera's very high standards. As Zurga Andrew Pardini has a clear and powerful voice that easily fills the hall. Tenor Spencer Viator sings Nadir; his is not as large a voice as Pardini's but it is wonderfully expressive of emotions; he conveys a deep tendresse. And soprano Sonja Krenek sings Leila beautifully, showing sublime confidence in those high notes. The high priest, Nourabad, is sung by Richard Zuch; his thunderingly powerful basso commands both players and audience.

The evening is filled with musical highlights. "The Pearl Fisher's Duet" ("Au fond du temple saint") in which Nadir and Zurga express their undying friendship is one of the most popular male duets in all of opera. Viator and Pardini sing it flawlessly, movingly. When the melody returns at the end of the opera it includes Miss Krenek as well-she and Viator as the lovers, balancing Pardini as the doomed hero. It's stunning work.

Viator shines in "Je crois entendre encore," his aria expressing his love for Leila.

Miss Krenek is outstanding in her gorgeous prayer to Brahma, which is backed by beautiful chorus work. Mr. Pardini is splendid in his aria where he sings that, though the terrible storm has calmed, the turbulence in his heart remains.

Bizet's score is enriched by quite wonderful choral passages for which Chorus Master Gail Hintz deserves high praise. And Bizet occasionally uses an orchestra soloist as almost another voice in a duet. Thus Leila sings a duet (well, a trio really) with the French horns. (This, by the way, is one of the most perfect performances on this difficult instrument that I have ever heard.) Similar "duets" invite a viola, an oboe or a harp to "sing" with the characters.

But there are weaknesses in the score as well. The overture seemed rather thin-and the fault I think lies with Bizet's orchestration rather than with Conductor Darwin Aquino and his orchestra of twenty-five. Maestro Aquino draws lovely work from his musicians throughout.

The plot is not much. The libretto, by Eugéne Cormon and Michel Carré has been criticized from day one as too simple, with two-dimensional characters. (The librettists are quoted as saying that "if we'd known that Bizet was going to be this good we would have tried harder.")

Scott Loebl once again does remarkable work with the scenery-especially in his vast, turbulent cloud-scape. It's so utterly realistic! And with Natali Arco's dramatic lighting it beautifully supports the passions played out by the singers. This "pathetic fallacy"--the feeling that all of nature behaves in sympathy with the emotions of the characters--is fundamentally necessary if we are to buy into the sheer melodrama of the plot. A priestess sworn to chastity but yielding to love, the lovers condemned to immediate death, forgiveness and release by the rejected lover, torching of the village to mask the escape, and death for the noble arsonist. A terrific storm marks the anger of the gods. In this Bizet's vigorously stormy music is augmented with enthusiastic off-stage crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning.

But I missed a tone of darkness and primitive exoticism in the production. Costumer JC Krajicek works her usual wonders in providing beauty for her cast; it's a rainbow of colors. But some of the colors chosen were particularly happy and light: pastels, pinks and yellows for the dancers. Deeper, richer tones would better support the sense of menace and doom that the plot requires. The dancing, under choreographer Holly Stolz Smith, is lovely and graceful, but lacked that distinctive south-Indian stylization.

And to see all those mostly-white arms and faces wearing oriental robes and turbans hints to our subconscious of the Sunday-school Christmas pageants of our childhood-events of innocence and happy hearts. Sri Lankans are a very dark people. Perhaps a little make-up, some body-paint? Alas, not today I suppose. (Soon, I'm sure, the "fat suit" will be taboo on stage.)

Stage Director Mark Freiman handles the large cast well, but the crowd scenes would benefit from more detailed attention; often the chorus seemed to move en masse, rather than as individuals. The dancers a time or two would breeze on, take their positions, and simply wait there for their cue.

And a minor irritant: the supertitles were rather dimly projected and difficult to read.

But these are quibbles considering the musical pearls that are scattered throughout the evening. It's Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles, presented by Winter Opera, St. Louis, in the acoustically perfect Viragh Center at Chaminade.

(Photos by Wylde Brothers Productions)

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Steve Callahan A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children. Nevertheless I've been active in theatre all my life--having directed fifty-three productions (everything from opera in Poughkeepsie to Mrozek in Woodstock to musical melodrama in Germany) and I've acted in seventy others. Now that I'm retired I don't have that eight-to-five distraction and can focus a bit more. I've regularly reviewed theatre in St. Louis for KDHX since 1991 and am tickled now to also join BWW.