Tulsa, OK — The Tulsa Opera is a company with a reputation for excellence and some adventurous programming, but it is starting a new era with the appointment of composer Tobias Picker as the Artistic Director. Picker was most recently known for his resurrection and revival of the San Antonio Opera. As a composer of many acclaimed operas himself, including Thérèse Raquin, An American Tragedy and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Picker knows opera from the inside out so there are high expectations for his tenure in Tulsa.
Judging by his spectacular first production, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), The Tulsa Opera is headed for even greater successes in the future.
The break from tradition and willingness to strike out in a new direction was obvious before a note of music was heard. The set, by the wonderfully bizarre, revolutionary and much-honored fashion designer Dame Zandra Rhodes, is nothing short of astonishing. It is in a completely original style that is somewhere between Marc Chagall and comic book illustrators, such as fellow Brit Brian Bolland (famous for his Batman makeover).
Huge electric orange and brilliant yellow palm trees frame the stage. The background shows an undulating sea, with waves like fiddlehead ferns, which imply the ocean surrounding the setting on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the Indian Ocean. Her costumes for the chorus show the influence of the dress of the Brahmin cast in India, with the women in blue, some of the men in the saffron robes of the priesthood.
The plot outlined below, is slim. This presents challenges the stage director, but it offered the 24-year-old Bizet the opportunity to write some of his most beautiful music.
The opera basically deals with the interaction of three characters. The two men, Zurga (baritone Yunpeng Wang) and Nadir (tenor Aaron Blake), are childhood friends. They fought over the love of a beautiful woman, Leila (sung by Sarah Shafer), and agreed to part, rather than fight it out. They also vowed that neither one would contact the woman.
Nadir leaves the island to make this pledge easier. Zurga remains and is elected chieftain as the opera opens. Soon, Nadir appears, having heard rumors that Leila might be in the village, which he doesn’t mention when he asks permission to return. The two friends have a touching reunion and, reviving their bromance, sing one of the most famous duets in the repertoire, “Au fond du temple saint.”
A veiled priestess whose sacred virginity, prayers and enchanted singing will shower blessings on the fishing village, arrives. Wouldn’t you know that it is Leila, but only Nadir recognizes her by her voice (remember, she is veiled). Nadir sneaks into the temple and the pair admit their love. As luck would have it, they are caught. When Zurga realizes that the veiled priestess is none other than Leila and that Nadir has broken his vow, he sentences the pair to death in a fit of jealous rage.
Then two things happen. First, Zurga recognizes a necklace he gave to Leila years ago when she saved his life (neither knew who they were at the time or remembered the event when they met later); and second, he regrets his rash actions and his out of control jealousy. Zurga then sets about making things right. He helps the lovebirds escape with the hugely overkill method of setting the entire village on fire.
As Nadir, a very spry Aaron Blake displays a bright Italianate sound that is full of youth and vigor. Still at the beginning of a promising career: he is great Verdi and Puccini tenor in the making.
He is especially impressive in the other well-known selection from this opera, Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore” (“I think I still hear”). This aria is study in soft lyrical singing and requires the tenor to float super soft notes at the top of his range—no small feat. Blake answered this challenge with a lovely mixture of his middle voice and falsetto.
An aside: In the past few years, Blake appeared with the Dallas Opera in secondary, but critically important, roles such as Gastone in Verdi’s La traviata (a role in which he will make his Metropolitan Opera debut this season).
Baritone Yunpeng Wang makes a sturdy Zurga, both physically and vocally. The Chinese tenor was featured on the cover of the October 2015 issue of Opera News: a mark of his rising importance in the opera world. At the Met, he will sing Mercutio in Bartlett Sher’s new production of Roméo et Juliette (conducted by the Dallas Opera’s Emmanuel Villaume). His rich voice offers a complementary, yet different, sound to Blake’s more lyric tenor, greatly enhancing their interactions.
As Leila, Sarah Shafer, is magnificent. She also made quite an impression as Zerlina with the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni. Opera News christened her as a “…singer to watch” (to which I would add “and to hear”). She displays a crystal clear and radiantly beautiful voice, singing Leila’s challenging music. She offers some extraordinarily impressive pianissimo phrases and high notes while dispatching the coloratura work with such naturalness that it’s barely noticeable as such.
As far as vocal casting goes, Russian American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as the high priest, Nourabad, adds a needed contrast to Wang’s more lyric baritone sound. Thus, the three leading men make a nearly perfect trio of contrasting voices.
Bogdanov is a little over-the-top as the villain of the opera, with his maniacal laugh and cracking a huge bullwhip. After all, he is a Brahmin (Hindu) priest pledged to gentleness and to never hurt a living thing. Of course, this is a version of priest that lives on an isolated island, so things might have evolved differently there.
The chorus has a lot to do in this opera and, as trained by Lyndon Meyer and they do a commendable job. Choreographer Priya Raju, listed as Assistant Choreographer, offers some exotic dances, performed in front of the chorus. The dancers are members of her Kripalaya Dance Academy, which specializes in Bharat Natyam, the best known of the classical Indian dance styles.
Conductor Emmanuel Plasson does little with the music other than play it accurately and with careful attention to balance. He is always with the singers and takes exceptionally accurate tempi throughout. What he lacks is an overarching view of the opera, a steady narrative from where it starts to where it ends. As a result, he is always in the moment and when he paused for applause on Friday, had to restart the energy towards the ultimate destination of the last chord.
An aside: Speaking of applause, with an unfamiliar opera it is wise to have a few “plants” in the audience who know when to applaud, thus prime the pump to get the audience started. Friday night’s audience was understandably unsure of where to applaud, except after the end of the most obvious musical event. As a result, after some fine singing, there were some “applause breaks” that passed in an awkward silence through no fault of the singers.
This brings us to director and choreographer, Denni Sayers. Her staging is more typical of what is thought of as “opera” rather than the recent movement towards staging opera more like the theater. She does an adequate job of moving the performers but never takes it to the next level of detailed stage interaction. The actors manage a fine job of characterization, but need help from more comprehensive stage movement. Also, the chorus is staged as a block of people rather than a collection of individuals. They are frequently grouped in a semicircle across the back of the stage or in two equal assemblages on either side of the action. They, like the leads, are able to show some emotions individually, such as anger, but always while grouped as a unit.
Admittedly, direction in this opera is hampered by the many contemplative arias, duets and choruses, where little is going on but reflection. But with Dame Rhodes’ spectacularly splashy opium dream sets, this was an opportunity missed to create a riskier and more cutting edge staging.
However, the static staging, which most people associate with opera anyway, doesn’t really detract from this excellent, visually arresting and beautifully sung production of Bizet’s tuneful opera featuring today’s most promising young opera stars. The Pearl Fishers is an opera that is rarely produced and this is an exceptional opportunity to see one of few earlier operas written by the composer of the megahit Carmen.
We’re looking forward to the other productions in Tulsa’s season: Puccini’s Tosca in May and the American premiere of Pierangelo Valtinoni’s The Snow Queen in June. Considering that there were some Dallas opera buffs spotted in The Pearl Fishers audience on Friday, they’ll probably be back, too.