BWW Review: THE PEARL FISHERS at KC Lyric Opera
The Pearl Fishers is one of Bizet's earlier works, and frankly not his most compelling. Composed a good ten years before Carmen, it has generally spent most of its time in the back catalogue, with only its famous "friendship duet" to show for itself. Just lately, however, there has been a bit of a resurgence in popularity, mostly due to the striking visuals of Zandra Rhodes' costumes & set design in the 2004 San Diego Opera production. It is this production that the Lyric is presenting to close off the season, and the result is somewhere between a bang and a whimper.
The story involves a Sri Lankan fishing village, where the newly elected leader Zurga (John Moore, bar) helps the village prepare for the dangerous pearl diving. Enter long-lost Nadir (Sean Panikkar, ten) Zurga's old friend who left the village years before in a dispute over a young lady, Leila (Maeve Höglund, sopr). The high priest Nourabad (Christian Zaremba, bass) announces a virgin has arrived to perform the all-important nonstop vigil of prayer to protect the pearl divers from the dangerous sea. Lo and behold, it's Leila. What follows next is inevitable: Nadir reunites with Leila, the vigil is broken, a storm destroys the village, and the two are sentenced to death. Zurga, haunted by remorse, frees them both by setting fire to what's left of the village(!), and sends them off so he can face the consequences alone.
Bizet's music, it must be said, even in its admittedly somewhat embryonic state, nevertheless manages to rise above the material (the libretto is by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré). Likewise, the performances on display last night were more than equal to the story. We particularly note Mr. Panikkar's excellent tenor voice. Excellent voice work all around, really, and as always accompanied by the Kansas City Symphony, this time under the baton of Antony Walker.
As to the production itself, this reviewer is in two minds. The costumes have all been created with meticulous care, and look amazing. John Malashock's choreography works well with the material, eschewing classical forms for something rather more suited to the setting, and Ron Vodicka's lighting work brings some beautiful moments itself. As to the set design, however, there is something cloying about deliberate mock-primitivism that gets right on this reviewer's nerves. The designs are executed in the giant-magic-marker school, with none of the underlying discipline that made Jun Kaneko's designs for The Magic Flute a few seasons ago such a success.
Likewise, the story itself has had some liberties in presentation. The urge to "fill out" such a tale is of course understandable, but cannot wholly be counted a success. A bit of political subtext is attempted, but isn't really followed anywhere. Zurga is given a rival who promptly disappears. Nourabad is set up as vaguely villainous - not that he actually does anything, mind you: he just lurks about in a menacing manner, and on one occasion paws at Leila's sleeping form. Actually, there's rather more pawing-at-sopranos in this production than one generally expects. Creepiness for its own sake, one suspects.
The Pearl Fishers is one of those stories that can only exist in opera. Viewed coldly on its own merits, it is a tolerable if not especially notable work. Changes in the look, enhancing the story and so on can only do so much to mitigate this. Perhaps it is best regarded as a demonstration of the composer as a young man, in which shadows of what will eventually come to be may be dimly seen. In any case, it is a fitting close to a season that has been itself a mix of old and new.