Could one ask for anything more than gorgeous music, beautifully conducted and sung in the service of bringing to life the never ending conflict between individual desire and community duty? It's a problem that exists for every generation and we are glad of it since it provides countless opera plots. Composed by Georges Bizet when he was only 24 years old, the setting for this conflict is exotic, erotic and totally captivating. As usual, the Santa Fe Opera got everything right in their presentation of The Pearl Fishers.
We are in the last third of the 19th c. on the island formerly known as Ceylon; we are among a community of pearl fishers whose lives are fraught with peril and whose mentality is given over to superstition. We have two men in love with the same woman who returns the love of one of them. Zurga the head fisherman and Nadir have close bonds of brotherhood and have vowed to give up their love of Leila to preserve their friendship. Zurga has gotten himself chosen to lead the group, a power play that perhaps consoles him for the loss of his love. Nadir has chosen to live in the woods, but as the opera opens he has returned to his community. Leila has been selected to be a priestess of Brahma whose role it is to pray and remain chaste to guarantee the safety of this fragile community. If she adheres to her vows of chastity she will be given the most valuable pearl; if she fails, she will be put to death. Nadir discovers her behind her veil and importunes her until her resistance is nearly overcome. They are discovered and threatened with the most extreme punishment. To learn how this plot evades the customary deaths of the star couple, you will have to take a ride up to the Santa Fe Opera to find out. You won't be disappointed.
Exotically beautiful Nicole Cabell, heard to great advantage a few days earlier at the Santa Fe Concert Association recital, carried the role of Leila with consummate artistry. Her clarion soprano offered intense feeling supported by admirably precise coloratura technique; her trillssounded like silvery water. Tenor Eric Cutler, well remembered from his Santa Fe Opera debut as Don Giovanni made a compelling Nadir with his fluid legato and right-on acting, letting the audience know just how conflicted he was by his lust/love for Leila and his brotherly love/loyalty toward Zurga. His "Je crois entendre encore" hit the goosebump level. Christopher Magiera used his sturdy baritone to great advantage as Zurga, showing the audience just how a man disappointed in romance can seek power as a substitute. His ultimate sacrifice is heartbreaking. French diction was so excellent that the titles scarcely needed to be consulted.
Bizet's youthful music is always tuneful, at times evincing a delicate filigree and at other times raw passion. One readily appreciates the origins from which sprang his Carmen, many years later. We are only 15 minutes into the piece when we are treated to the gorgeous tenor/baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint" and this heart-stopping melody recurs several times during the all-too-short evening. But perhaps one shouldn't complain about the brevity since the action moves forward without ceasing and gives a sense of unity and conciseness. As conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume we hear every motive as it skips around the orchestra. Particularly notable were some woodwind solos and some lovely harp playing.
Director Lee Blakeley and scenic designer Jean-Marc Puisssant created a production that was straightforward dramatically but a bit puzzling. We wondered about the vermeil picture frame bisecting the stage on an angle; was this meant to suggest that we were watching a storybook event? When the erring couple was apprehended the frame was lowered, perhaps meant to be an earthquake that punished them for their violation of vows. Were the European looking elements at stage right meant to refer to a British presence during the Raj?
We loved the costume design of Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Leila's exotic costumes were set off by the dull-colored but interestingly styled costumes of the fishermen and their women. That the chorus of apprentices sang so well under the directorship of Susanne Sheston was another plus in this production. Each one seemed to have an individual personality and appearance. In sum, it was another stellar evening at the Santa Fe Opera. It made us wonder why this gorgeous opera is so rarely performed. It deserves better.
(c) meche kroop