Les Pêcheurs de Perles
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In Review > North America

Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Seattle Opera

AS IF THERE AREN'T hundreds of better operas, Les Pêcheurs de Perles returned to Seattle Opera on October 17, after an absence of less than seven years for a company that—Ring years aside—mounts just four to six shows a season. That’s a Carmen-like interval for Bizet’s much earlier, much lesser work.

Pearls it has—the melodious duet “Au fond du temple saint” and its many idée fixe echoes; the twice-heard blockbuster chorus “Brahma, divin Brahma” (recycled from a Te Deum for a new deity, its name set as both trochee and iamb!); the high, dreamy tenor romance “Je crois entendre encore”; the Micaëla-anticipating soprano cavatina with horn “Comme autrefois.” Those comprise about one-fourth of the score; most of the rest, especially the other choruses and the dance music, seems decidedly second-rate. As for the libretto, we won’t dwell on the necklace stronger than jealousy, the leader who changes his mind three times, or the fire mistaken for the dawn.

The much-loved duet, ubiquitous on classical radio and at gala concerts, causes Les Pêcheurs de Perles to be among the most-requested operas, and Seattle Opera had imported a colorful production by a flamboyant big-name designer, so it was no surprise that McCaw Hall was nearly full on Oct. 17 and 18. Designer Zandra Rhodes, who created her Pêcheurs designs for San Diego Opera in 2004, zaps viewers with flaming red, orange and yellow palm trees that foreshadowed the fire. She dresses priest, priestess and temple entourage in softer oranges, pearl divers and harvesters in ocean and lagoon blues.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles might well be mounted for a great French-stylist tenor: Vinson Cole was an ideal Nadir here in 1994; I didn’t hear William Burden in 2009. John Tessier was stylistically on track, the approach sensitive, the tone forwardly placed, but the timbre was pinched and unattractive, and a tremolo afflicted the romance. Next day, Anthony Kalil was a little less stylish, a little more generic, with a more attractive timbre. Brett Polegato, the first-cast Zurga, was superb, his baritone strong and expressive, his tormented character commanding the stage. Keith Phares was vocally secure and consistent, but his Zurga seemed all too untroubled. Neither Nourabad satisfied: Jonathan Lemalu began with a big bass that grew woolly; Joo Won Kang, a baritone, sounded too much like his Zurga.

Two lovely Léïlas were each welcome but contrasted sharply. Maureen McKay, singing classically with clean trills and grace notes, seemed really to be the chaste priestess that Zurga and Nourabad wanted Léïla to be. Next day, Elizabeth Zharoff, less accurate, wilder, was persuasive as an apostate priestess passionate for Nadir and gave the production some badly needed sensuality. The lumpy, primitive dancing choreographed by John Malashock was comically lacking in sensuality, which wasn’t heard either in the prosaic, less-than-fluid conducting of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak.

Stage director Andrew Sinclair presented Nourabad as clairvoyant, onto Nadir’s game from the start, divining that the necklace came from Zurga and dropping it in his face. Sinclair had Zurga manhandle Léïla on the floor, and he had Zurga shot to death in full view of Léïla and Nadir, who fled singing incongruously of their happy future. That, Sinclair explained, happened only in Zurga’s imagination; in reality, the pursued lovers would be gunned down too. But I doubt many viewers read it that way.

Seattle Opera mostly followed the Choudens edition. The duet ended with a reprise of the big tune and a grand cadence. The Nadirs sang the romance’s unwritten high ending. The escape-delaying trio composed by Benjamin Godard was omitted. —Mark Mandel 

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