When one goes to see an opera with a title like The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles in French), one expects romance and adventure in an exotic setting – something a little out of the ordinary. And that is exactly what one gets at the North Carolina Opera performance of the opera the 25-year-old Georges Bizet composed some ten years before his masterpiece, Carmen.
The story (libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michael Carrè) takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in ancient times. It relates the tale of lifelong friends Zurga and Nadir and their obsessive love for the virgin priestess Leila, whose prayers are considered critical for the fishermen's safety. Vows are made and broken, and consequences are determined and changed as past events are revealed. In the end, Zurga expresses his love for Leila by recognizing her love in favor of Nadir. He then sets the fishing village on fire to make it possible for the two condemned lovers to escape together. Then he takes his own life.
To be honest the opera is not a work of genius. The libretto lacks focus and direction, and the quality of the music is uneven; at times sparkling with Bizet's extraordinary gifts of melody and evocative instrumentation and at other times lacking originality. On the other hand the NCO's production and performance are first rate in every respect.
The sets draw on talented and skilled designers and artists from Sarasota, FL, and South Glens Falls, NY. The richly colorful costumes were designed for Utah Symphony and Opera by Martin Lopez. The first act opens with palm trees and a view of the vast expanse of the ocean. On one side of the stage is a grass hut and on the other, what appeared to be part of a stone temple. With the large cast of villagers in their bright costumes the stage was a glorious sight, full of life and potential adventure. Acts II, III and the closing scene were each different and nearly as elaborate.
One of the happy elements of this production was the presence of six solo dancers from Carolina Ballet: Sophia Nelson, Lauren Wolfram, Sarah Roe, Maxmilian Isaacson, Nicholas Fokine, and Miles Sollars-White. Their movements and poses enhanced much of the storytelling as choreographed by the brilliant Candace Evans, who also designed and directed the staging.
The four vocal soloists, ideally cast, did an outstanding job of coping with the cavernous Memorial Auditorium, which sometimes seems to swallow up solo passages. Regular NCO audiences will remember Talise Trevigne and her brilliant portrayal of Cio-Cio-San in 2015. The power of her voice is tempered by a pure and shimmering quality, and her upper register is especially crystalline and bright. She was a beautifully compelling Leila.
John Bellemer brought to the role of Nadir his considerably wide experience in opera, concerts, and recitals. His vocal rendition was characterized by a genuine tenor realization. His first-act aria "Je crois entendre encore" was splendid and every bit as infectious as the famous duet with Zurga.
Baritone Jarrett Ott, the other half of that duet, is another up-and-coming opera talent. His warm, rich baritone voice made for a convincing and sympathetic portrayal. The universally acclaimed duet "Au fond du temple saint," was sung magnificently; the stuff of operatic rapture.
Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma, was sung by Jordan Bisch, a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.* His mellow bass voice was so pleasing to hear one wished Bizet had written more music for this character.
Various choruses, some all men, some all women, and some mixed, play significant parts in The Pearl Fishers; and under the direction of Scott MacLeod, they were all resplendent. Act II ends as a violent storm erupts and the fishermen unite in singing a hymn to Brahma ("Brahma divin Brahma!"). It was glorious.
The orchestra, under the baton of Timothy Myers, was masterful. Myers conducted as though all the music mattered, even the less inspired passages.
All of these excellent parts – the soloists, the choruses, the dancers, the set designers, the lighting designer, the stage director, and more collaborators – did their specific jobs with obvious dedication, skill, and effectiveness. It all added up to a spectacular and exotic experience for the large audience on Friday evening.
This opera will be repeated on Sunday, April 30 at 3:00 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.