|Evan Lazdowski, Shantal Martin, Juan Lázaro, Thomas Muraco, Sungah Baek, Laureano Quant, and Esteban Zuniga .
Conductor/collaborative pianist/coach/educator Thomas Muraco has been on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music for a quarter of a century and we have lost count of how many operas he has conducted for the MSM Opera Repertoire Ensemble; but we haven't forgotten how much we have enjoyed them. His attention to musical detail is highly impressive and his hands are highly expressive. No baton needed!
Last night he conducted Bizet's 1863 opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (composed when Bizet was but 25 years old) in a reduction of the score for two pianos, four hands devised by Sungah Baek. Those twenty fingers, belonging to Ms. Baek and Juan José Lázaro, simply flew over the keys and brought out voices we had totally overlooked in orchestral performances. Sitting "up close and personal", certain aspects of the superficially silly libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré began to make psychological sense, thanks to some astute direction by A. Scott Parry.
The absence of sets and costumes (save for Léïla's white dress and exotic veiled headpiece) allowed us to focus on the music. Anyone who has attended voice competitions would be familiar with "Au fond du temple saint", the deliciously harmonic duet sung by the tenor and the baritone early in Act I. The tenor's soliloquy "Je crois entendre encore" is often heard as well.
However, the score offers several more treats worthy of audition or competition pieces, highlighting the singer's expressiveness. We were highly impressed with the authoritative performance of baritone Laureano Quant who created the character of a tragic hero undone by jealousy but redeemed through generosity. At the conclusion of the opera, Zuniga sacrifices his own life to allow his old friend Nadir to escape the funeral pyre, along with the temple priestess whom they both love.
Mr. Quant's rich round tone filled out his song of remorse "L'orage est calmé" which paralleled the subsiding of the storm endured by the villagers-- who believe that the betrayal of Léïla is responsible. He refuses Léïla's request for mercy in "Je suis jaloux" but changes his mind when he sees the deus ex machina necklace that he had bestowed upon her years earlier when she saved his life. All these changes of emotion were reflected in Mr. Quant's phrasing and coloration. It was a masterful and memorable performance.
As Léïla, soprano Shantal Martin was convincing in her acting and excellent in her command of the vocal line. Her conflict was between spiritual duties that she had promised to execute faithfully and her lust/love rekindled by Nadir from a prior period in their lives. Ms. Martin conveyed Léïla's weakness of character without sacrificing vocal strength. She was particularly fine in the melismatic passages that amounted to a gorgeous vocalise. Her voice soared in the upper register making us almost forget that she's a "bad girl".
Nadir is a "bad boy" as well. He has betrayed his friend Zurga in an earlier period, after the two of them had promised to preserve their friendship by giving up their love for the tempting Léïla. As portrayed by tenor Esteban Zuniga, he appears sly, shifty, sneaky, and aware of his guilt. As a matter of fact (or opinion) we thought Mr. Zuniga overacted a bit with an excess of mugging. Sometimes less is more! Mr. Zuniga's light tenor seemed suitable for bel canto opera. He harmonized beautifully with Ms. Martin in their Act II duet, and also in Act III as they faced death.
Evan Lazdowski used his fine bass instrument successfully in the role of the High Priest Nourabad. His character is dour, suspicious, stern and forbidding as one might expect. The unfamiliar ending (from an 1886 revival) has him stabbing Zurga to death. Mr. Quant succeeded in making Zurga a sympathetic character but he did set fire to his village so we guess he deserved his fate.
Particularly noteworthy was the excellent French diction, coached by Elsa Quéron. We did not even need the titles; every word was clear.
Also noteworthy was the performance of the chorus. They sang well and added the necessary backdrop for the drama.
There is a matinée performance at 2:30 on Sunday and we urge you to attend. Although the cast will be different, the music will be the same. We found a great deal of aural enchantment in the repetitive Oriental motifs.
(c) meche kroop