|Corinne Winters and Ilker Arcayürek in Les Pêcheurs de Perles
(photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)
Last night was our first night at the Santa Fe Opera and we have nothing but wonderful things to say about their production of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Is this the same production we saw seven years ago? We recall enjoying it but last night's iteration brought the work into sharper focus, both dramatically and musically. This is an opera that is not frequently heard but almost every opera lover is familiar with the famous Nadir-Zurga duet "Oui, c'est elle, c'est la déesse" in which both men make vows going against the nature of love. Almost every competition and recital in New York has this duet on the program.
But hearing the entire opera is a special treat and offers several more arias and duets that merit ones attention. If you, dear reader, have never listened to the opera in toto, we recommend it highly. Even better, come to Santa Fe for one of the two final performances on 8/16 and 8/23.
Much of the credit for this success can be attributed to the excellent casting. In the role of the Brahmin Priestess Leíla, we heard one of our favorite sopranos enjoyed so often at New York Festival of Song--Corinne Winters. Opera, lieder, and cabaret are three very different categories and it is astonishing to hear someone gifted in all three. This petite young woman has a voice that is anything but petite--the timbre and resonance are appealing and the vocal colors with which she imbued the various scenes showed the measure of her artistry. Nor could one fault her superb acting.
As the Hunter Nadir who simply cannot forget her, we heard tenor Ilker Arcayürek, previously unknown to us, but making a fine impression with his pleasing instrument, fine phrasing, and convincing acting.
Equally impressive in the role of Head Honcho Zurga we heard baritone Anthony Clark Evans who sang with beautiful phrasing and heartfelt emotion. He too was successful at coloring his voice in ways that enhanced our understanding of his emotional journey.
As happy as we were that Leíla and Nadir escaped their death sentence and went off to live happily ever after, we were equally sad for Zurga who overcame his rage at Leíla for preferring Nadir and his pain and anger at Nadir's betrayal. His vengeful anger, his forgiveness, the nobility he expressed in self-sacrifice--all were perfectly portrayed.
Bass Robert Pomakov was scarily convincing as the High Priest Nourabad. His rumbling bass and aggressive postures were chilling.
The chorus of Santa Fe Apprentice Singers performed brilliantly as usual and for this we acknowledge Susanne Sheston, whose fine work has impressed us from one year to the next
Director Shawna Lucey showed us aspects of the story that we had previously overlooked. Although the love triangle and the issues of revenge and forgiveness are universal. Ms. Lucey went a long way toward giving us the specific context within which the story develops. The trend of setting libretti in exotic locales was common in the 19th c.--a trend that we love--and librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré selected the island formerly known as Ceylon with the action taking place in a community of pearl divers.
The risk of this occupation was made clear with drowned bodies being washed ashore; the devotion in the ensuing funereal Hindu ritual was also made clear. And so we have a greater understanding of the vital role of the visiting priestess Leíla and the importance the community placed on her chastity whilst she sang and prayed all night for their safety.
The issues of love versus duty, betrayal and revenge, all can be generalized from the specific; similarly the domination of a vengeful leader whipping his followers into a frenzy of murderous rage can also be generalized and seems particularly relevant to our time. It is this work the listener performs in finding analogies with the present that we find so woefully missing in "updated" productions.
On the podium we had Maestro Timothy Myers who elicited some fine playing from the orchestra. Bizet's music is inventive of melody, lush of harmony, and colorful of orchestration. Mo. Myers brought out every recurrence of every theme. We heard an outstanding oboe solo and a beautiful chorale of muted brass. We also enjoyed the contributions of the harp. We heard what sounded like a Venetian barcarolle that certainly evoked the seaside nature of the locale.
Jean-Marc Puissant's set was serviceable but not remarkable. The action was surrounded by a gilded frame, reminding us that this is an escapist fantasy. But why did some action take place in front of the frame? And what was meant by the presence of a very European desk and chair that seemed to serve no purpose. In the final act, the gilt frame was askew and the stage was filled with broken furniture and a huge plaster sculpture that we finally figured out was the hand of a Buddha statue. Perhaps all this was meant to suggest the destruction wrought by angry gods over Leíla's betrayal of her vow of chastity.
Lighting by Rick Fisher was augmented by Mother Nature who seemed to provide flashes of lightning at all the right times, as is so often the case at Santa Fe Opera. (We recall a terrific storm one night in the final act of Rigoletto which outdid Verdi's orchestral storm.)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes for the chorus and principals were apt but Leíla's second costume was breathtaking. She looked like a mermaid sitting on a rock, or perhaps like the Lorelei luring men to their destruction. Who could resist?
The opera premiered in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique de Paris. Neither comic nor tragic, it was considered insufficiently grand for the Opéra but too serious for the Opéra-Comique. It languished until the mid 20th c. and we are glad that it has entered the repertoire.
Do see it!
(c) meche kroop