The High Priest Nourabad (Justin Hopkins) publically accuses Nadir (Sean Panikkar) of sneaking into the temple to find his lover, Leila,&nbsp;in Bizet\'s&nbsp;<em>The Pearl Fishers</em>&nbsp;at Fort Worth Opera
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Review: The Pearl Fishers | Fort Worth Opera | Bass Performance Hall

Gem of the Ocean

The Fort Worth Opera Festival is off to a strong start with a stunning production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

published Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Photo: Karen Almond/Fort Worth Opera
High Priest Nourabad (Justin Hopkins) looks on as the villagers call for the execution of Nadir (Sean Panikkar) and Leila (Hailey Clark) in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at Fort Worth Opera

Fort Worth — Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers is basically known for one selection, but it is a doozy—a stunningly beautiful duet for tenor and baritone. This occurs early in the opera. Fortunately, the tune returns frequently, acting as a leitmotiv, or signature tune, for the overriding tragedy of the plot.

The opera, which opened the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival in a thrilling and gorgeous production at Bass Performance Hall on Saturday, takes place in an exotic location and time: ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and concerns a ragtag tribe of pearl divers. We know they are not doing well because the score calls for a wild and arid beach strewn with the ruins of Hindi temples and we see them elect a new King in the first scene. (No word on what happened to the last one).

Roberto Oswald’s scenery, set against a vast starry sky, perfectly fits this description, with its collapsed sideways statue in the second and third acts (it’s upright in the first), and transports us to that distant time and place. 

Photo: Karen Almond/Fort Worth Opera
Nadir (Sean Panikkar) sings of his love for Leila in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at Fort Worth Opera

The plot is a little contrived and events move at a comically quick place, but there are sillier operas by a mile. Soon after Zurga’s election, his long-vanished friend Nadir shows up. In the past, they both fell in love with the same woman, who they had barely glimpsed. They swore to keep their friendship by promising that neither will see her again—in that duet. To improve the fortunes of the tribe, a sacred woman is brought to the island each year. This time, it is soon revealed to Nadir that the veiled priestess is none other than the disputed love interest, Leïla. He confronts her, which is supposed to be in a temple, and they declare their love. The scene is witnessed by the high priest and Zurga must condemn them both. Realizing their love is true and strong and he doesn’t have a chance at her, Zurga repents of his jealousy and takes steps to allow them to escape. These “steps” are a little extreme—he sets fire to the entire village.

In one version, he waves goodbye. But in this version, he is pillared for his perfidy by his own guards. However, this doesn’t stop him from singing, right up to the last moment of music.

Ah, opera. Ya gotta luvit.

This is the best work that director/choreographer John de los Santos has done to date. He doesn’t overburden the opera and lets it speak for itself rather than commenting on the action with an overlay. Except for the unavoidable problem of getting the chorus on and off the stage quickly, no one moves for the sake of moving. They go somewhere important and for some reason, rather than just move stage right. The choreography is minimal and uses movement that evokes the time and place rather than literally recreating. 

Too bad Oswald doesn’t give Leïla a bed to sleep on, or even a temple in which to reside. She has to sleep on ground. At least she is allotted a mat and pillow.

As Nadir, Sean Panikkar is amazing fit vocally and physically. He is of Sri Lankan descent, which is quite an amazing confluence. While you don’t have to be Japanese to sing Butterfly, it helps when that is the case. However, I feel safe to venture that there are a lot more Japanese sopranos than Sri Lankan tenors, so Fort Worth is fortunate indeed. That luck also holds the minute he starts to sing. He knocked our socks off last season when he turned in a stellar Rodolfo in La bohème and he is even more impressive here. His voice has grown to even bigger proportions while retaining the flexibility of the floating high notes Bizet demands.

Photo: Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera
Leia (Hailey Clark) vows to remain veiled and pure while she prays for the pearl fishermen’s safety in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at Fort Worth Opera

As Zurga, Lee Poulis displays a virile baritone that is one notch lighter than Panikkar’s. As Leïla, soprano Hailey Clark has a coloratura-sounding voice that is about two notches lighter than both of them. This creates some balance problems between the three of them. Panikkar could fix a lot of this on his own if he would pull back slightly when all three are singing. He sails out over everything, when not exceeding the aggregate dynamic level would be the better choice.

Bizet gives all three show-stopping moments and the singers make the most of them. The top prize has to go to Panikkar for his rendition of the tenor aria “Je crois entendre encore. Usually, tenors get applause for their loud, blasting high notes. Here, it was just the opposite. Panikkar’s gossamer high notes mesmerized the audience.

Poulis covered the full dramatic range of the role with sure acting chops. He goes from jealousy and murderous rage to devastated repentanpce and still has to show the command expected of a king (no matter how recently elected). All this is included in his big third act aria, “L'orage est calmé.” You suspect that he has a lot more heft in the lower of his voice than he wisely uses so as to even out his sound top to bottom. And even it is; his control is a rarity around baritones these days.

Clark’s turn comes with “Comme autrefois dans la nuit somber.” She does a fine job with the aria, but it could use a little more of the lyric soprano singing it. Unlike some other French composers, such as Gounod and Massenet, Bizet was heavily influenced by both the Italian operas of his day and a dose of Wagner as well.  He asks for more substantial voices than his colleagues in The Pearl Fishers—and much more so in his next opera, Carmen.

In the other leading role, that of the high priest Nourabad, Justin Hopkins leans more to the bass baritone sound. This is excellent vocal casting for the opera in that all three men have distinctively different voices with contrasting timbres.

Scott Marr’s costumes are a wonder to behold. The very buff two leading men are displayed in all their six-pack glory; the male dancers as well. "Poulis’ Pants" was the subject of much speculation among the audience. They are slung as low as possible, so would they stay up or not? The female dancers are in the usual skimpy skirts.  The choristers, on the other hand, are heavily draped in yards of non-descript beige fabrics. Why? This is Ceylon after all, which has an average year-round temperature of 80 degrees.

Joe Illick elicited some excellent playing from the versatile Fort Worth Symphony. One of his many gifts is a sure sense of tempo that he combines with an understanding of the needs of the singers. You can feel him gradually adjust if he feels the singer needs the tempo to move or relax. He also breathes with his singers so entrances are right together. There were some balance problems with the stage here and there. Part of this is because of the vast difference in the sizes of the leading’s voices. Loud for Panikkar is too loud for Clark, even though they are singing at the same time.

The 25-year-old Bizet would go on to write Carmen, a vast improvement over The Pearl Fishers. However, his early death robbed us of the operas that “might have been” after Carmen. After all, he was only 20 or so years older than Puccini, whose early operas are only performed as curiosities. As with all composers who died young, Mozart and Schubert being two prime examples, we can only speculate on those unwritten masterpieces that we will never know.

» Click here to see our interview with baritone Lee Poulis

Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:

  • World premiere of Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask's With Blood, With Ink
  • The popera outfit Forte, featuring Sean Panikkar

» Here's a preview video for The Pearl Fishers:


Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:

Remaining Schedule of 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival Performances

Tuesday, May 6          7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7     7:30 p.m          McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8         6:00 p.m          McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9              3:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9             7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                    Silent Night
Sunday, May 11         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte


Photo: Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera
Nadir (Sean Panikkar) accepts Zurga’s (Lee Poulis) invitation to stay with the pearl fishers, in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at Fort Worth Opera
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Gem of the Ocean
The Fort Worth Opera Festival is off to a strong start with a stunning production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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