Magnificent ensemble numbers and a fine soprano are the main attractions of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, which opened Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.
Set in ancient Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, The Pearl Fishers is a product of the Romantic-era fascination with the mysterious East that produced Madama Butterfly, Turandot, Lakmé and The Mikado. A youthful effort by the composer who would go on to write Carmen, The Pearl Fishers today lives on the fringes of the standard repertory.
Opera fans are used to ridiculous plots. Dull plots are harder to take, and that’s one of the problems with The Pearl Fishers. Not much happens: A beautiful woman is brought to sing to protect a village of pearl divers from danger. Two best friends, one the leader of the village, are in love with her. Conflict erupts. But there’s much great music in it, and you can almost feel the 24-year-old Bizet’s lyrical and dramatic gifts bursting the seams of the mediocre libretto.
The opera contains the most famous tenor-baritone duet in the entire repertory, “Au fond du temple saint,” in which the two friends, Nadir and Zurga, extol the beauty of the woman they both love and promise to remain friends forever. Although FGO’s production was not in all ways a first-rate effort, at this moment everything came together — singers, orchestra and conductor — for a stirring, soaring few minutes of opera. Other ensemble passages were also powerful, particularly the final scene of Act 2, with flashing lightning, a rumbling orchestra and the chorus capturing the terror of the storm and the impending punishment for the two illicit lovers.
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As Leila, the woman with whom both men are in love, the young American soprano Sydney Mancasola, a Grand Finals winner of the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, gave a full-voiced, committed performance. She adroitly and elegantly handled the complex coloratura of “O, dieu Brahma,” never letting the difficult runs and ornaments interfere with the aria’s lyricism.
Throughout, she sang with a rich, focused, gleaming voice. But more than that, she showed a gift for infusing the character’s emotion into every moment, her voice turning urgent and fearful as she recalls the terror of an angry mob bursting into her house when she was a child, or when her voice radiates gladness as she realizes Nadir is nearby. She made the most of every moment, singing with a sorrowful intimacy as she handed one of the villagers her necklace before what she believed would be her execution.
The baritone Corey McKern’s robust voice made for a formidable Zurga, the leader of the pearl divers. He could sing with warmth and tenderness, as he did in his duet with Nadir. He effectively expressed his conflicted, tormented thoughts in “L’orage est calmé,” as he wrestles with his conscience in condemning his friend to death. And he could be overwhelming in his fury, when he realizes Leila loves Nadir.
As Nadir, the man who won Leila’s heart, the French tenor Philippe Talbot brought a light, attractive tone, particularly on sustained notes. His lower register isn’t the strongest, and there was a lack of emotion to his singing, with the aria “Je crois entendre encore” not coming off as all that convincingly as an expression of love. But his appealing tone did a lot to make a success of the ensemble numbers, such as the duets with Zurga and Leila.
As the high priest Nourabad, who shows up to ruin everything, as high priests in operas tend to do, the Turkish bass Burak Bilgili was a baleful, foreboding presence, both physically and vocally, effectively embodying the dark power of the religious establishment.
Sets from Sarasota Opera consisted of thatched huts, huge heads of Hindu gods, stone walls and palm trees, effectively creating the faraway world of the Indian Ocean.
Anthony Barrese, a newcomer to the FGO pit, led the orchestra. Barrese, artistic director of Opera Southwest, held back the musicians more than the company's principal conductor, Ramón Tebar, never allowing them to overpower the singers.
The chorus, directed by Brett Karlin, artistic director of the Master Chorale of South Florida, gave a varied performance, at times sounding threadbare, with wavering intonation, at other times, making a full-voiced, dramatic contribution.
Under stage director A. Scott Parry, the main characters interacted in a natural, convincing manner, with an outstretched hand or a pat on the back capturing the intimacy and hurt feelings between the two old friends.
Elsewhere stage blocking came off as stiff and stylized, with little of the tropical languor suggested by the music. Leila's first entrance bordered on the comical, as the villagers heaped garlands and bows on her to overflowing, as she stood stiffly in place like a singing Christmas tree.
There were a surprising number of empty seats at the Arsht Center, unusual for an opening night, although the heavy flooding that closed some roadsSaturday may have contributed to that.
Florida Grand Opera will perform The Pearl Fishers Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and March 12 and 14 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. In Friday’s performance, Will Hughes will sing the role of Zurga and Daniel Bates will sing the role of Nadir. In the Saturday, March 12 and March 14 performances, Emily Birsan will sing the role of Leila. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.
For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com