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Opera Review

A first-rate cast finds treasure in Lyric Opera’s colorful “Pearl Fishers”

Mon Nov 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mariusz Kwiecień, Marina Rebeka, and Matthew Polenzani in Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Mariusz Kwiecień, Marina Rebeka, and Matthew Polenzani in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

There are good reasons for not taking The Pearl Fishers seriously: an improbable setting in a Ceylonese pearl fishing village; the romantic rivalry of best friends for a virgin priestess; and numerous “native” dances that in the wrong hands can evoke some of Abbot & Costello’s lesser cinematic efforts.

And yet the opera remains in the repertory for even better reasons. The themes of love, jealousy, rejection and ultimate forgiveness remain ever timely. And, most crucially, while Georges Bizet’s score doesn’t equal the emotional depth and complexity of his Carmen to come a decade later, Les pêcheurs de perles is a tuneful, richly melodic opera, chockablock with rousing choruses, grateful solo opportunities for all three principals, and the most ineffably beautiful tenor-baritone duet in all opera.

Lyric Opera of Chicago revived The Pearl Fishers in a matinee performance Sunday, the company’s first mounting of Bizet’s opera in nine years. And even for those skeptical about this piece, with a supreme trio of first-class singers in the principal roles set against a lively and colorful production, this is about as vocally and musically successful a Pearl Fishers as one can ever hope to experience.

It doesn’t hurt of, course, to have Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecień in the lead roles of Nadir and Zurga—best friends whose bond is one again threatened by the appearance of the Brahma priestess Leïla–the same woman each had fallen in love with years earlier.

The opera’s famous male-bonding duet, “Au fond du temple saint” comes early in the first act and set the standard for the vocal excellence of the afternoon. Polenzani’s hushed opening stanza and Kwiecień’s dark tone complemented each other beautifully; the rapt duet rose to a soaring, glorious climax, the two men receiving an extended ovation.

Polenzani had an especially impressive performance in his second Lyric appearance this fall, following his acclaimed Count in Rigoletto last month. The Illinois-born tenor rendered Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore” as a hushed soliloquy, the top final notes floated with tender, feather-soft delicacy. He was also dramatically credible  throughout even when the scenario takes its unlikely turns. 

After intermission company president Anthony Freud announced from the stage that Mariusz Kwiecień was suffering from a cold and that he asked for the audience’s “understanding.”

You could have fooled me. Apart from a fleeting moment of huskiness in Act 1, any impairment was barely discernible. Plus 80% of Kwiecień is better than 100% of most other singers.

As Zurga, the Polish baritone brought the same instant authority and commanding presence he routinely brings to Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni (his last two Lyric roles). As the bare-chested leader of the village, Kwiecień sang with dark saturnine tone and brought dramatic intensity to the mercurial Zurga’s conflicted emotions–forgiving toward his friend and then erupting at Leïla after she asks for Nadir’s pardon, the baritone made Zurga’s eventual self-sacrifice a moving moment. 

Marina Rebeka was a fitting and fully understandable object of desire as Leïla, the alluring pivot of this Ceylonese romantic triangle. Though sparing with some of the role’s top notes, the Latvian soprano brought tonal refinement and flexible singing to the role. Rebeka was at her best in a lovely rendering of Leïla’s Act II cavatina “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre” and duly impassioned with Polenzani in the ensuing love duet.

The single weak link in the cast was Andrea Silvestrelli, whose raw, hoary bass was not exactly balm to the ears as the high priest Nourabad.

Pearl Fishers is a real opera opera, and Lyric largely provided the scenic spectacle with a blindingly colorful, energetic production. With its mix of choruses, dancing and solo set pieces, one can hardly imagine a better show than Lyric’s Pearl Fishers to aid a dubious musical theater friend into making the transition into an opera aficionado.

Zandra Rhodes’ well-traveled San Diego Opera production bathes the stage in a riotous sea of golds, oranges, reds, pinks and blues. If some of the painted scenery looks a bit–well, regional–in its cut-rate exoticism–Ron Vodicka’s painterly lighting provided enough practical magic to cover most of the seams.  John Malashook’s choreography for the many Terpsichorean sequences was largely effective and only moderately silly, well executed by the dancers. 

Apart from the debatable decision of opting for the unsubtle, violent coda of the revised version, Andrew Sinclair’s direction was largely faultless. His staging of the complicated action was fluent and assured, with the potentially chaotic traffic of principals, dancers and chorus members handled smoothly and unobtrusively with no opening-night mishaps.  

It was nice to finally have a vehicle this season where the full Lyric Opera Chorus can shine (onstage). Michael Black’s ensemble delivered magnificently with robust and richly lyrical singing in their myriad opportunities.   

Andrew Davis has a genuine knack for French repertoire, and provided a finely balanced account of this score, bringing nervy frisson to the dramatic moments and refined elegance to the solo arias.

Even with their continuing five-hour marathons of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the Lyric Opera Orchestra showed no fatigue and covered themselves in glory Sunday with rich and beautifully iridescent playing across all sections Horns and winds were special standouts.

The Pearl Fishers runs through December 10. lyricopera.org

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