George Bizet was only in his 20s when he wrote his opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). While the tenor and baritone duet in the first act "Au fond du temple saint" is a staple of opera excerpts programs and the tenor aria "Je crois entendre encore" occasionally finds it way to a recital or audition list, a production of the entire opera is a rarity. Thus, it is with a great deal of anticipation that audiences are streaming to Santa Fe Opera this summer to have the chance to experience it.
And they are not disappointed. Although the set is both glorious and appropriate, and one can only guess at its real meaning, the opera could hardly get a better performance.
Jean-Marc Puissant's set appears to divide the stage into Bizet's crumbling Victorian world of the 1860s, represented by some city buildings in disrepair, and the world of ancient Ceylon (where the opera is set), as viewed through a proscenium-sized gilded picture frame. Although the actors easily move in and out of the frame, the division of eras is clearly demarcated. Native fishing boats are in the frame and a Louis Quatorz writing desk and chair stand just outside of it. A gigantic foot in the expansive Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) vista hints at a statue that is hundreds of feet tall, while the worn-out and partially boarded up city buildings in front of the frame feel cramped and claustrophobic. This, of course, is just how I saw it. Others in the audience within earshot loudly commented that they had no idea what the jumble on the stage meant.
Even the weather cooperated with the production. No lighting designer could recreate the stunning sunset that nature provided in the opening scene. The storm that wipes out the village was supplemented with black clouds and real lightening. In fact, the usually effective strobe created lightening on stage looked fake when the real thing was going on all around.
The libretto is weak, presenting cardboard characters in a preposterous plot. Zurga is elected chief of the village, which must have a branch of Gold's Gym on the island with all the shirtless buff men running around. His old friend Nadir reappears and they remember the old days when they both loved the same virgin priestess. Imagine their surprise when she shows up to be the new vestal in residence on this very island. Her reign as virgin protector doesn't even make it through the night as Nadir sneaks into the temple. Zurga sentences them both to death, but relents when he discovers that she was the mysterious maiden that saved him once in the distant past. He sets fire to the village, in a bit of overkill, to allow them to escape.
Vocally, the cast is uniformly terrific. Each one of them looks the part, and with the sympathetic assistance of director Lee Blakeley, is able to breathe some life into the stock characters. The standout on Tuesday was Nicole Cabell as the conflicted priestess, Leila. She is the much-longed-for lyric coloratura soprano with a burnished creamy sound. Her voice is textbook bel canto perfectly placed and the softest sound projected clearly to the very back of the hall. As I listened to her perfect yet impassioned singing in tuneful but still early Bizet, I couldn't help but make a list of meaty roles I would love to hear her sing.
Eric Cutler, as the appropriately named Nadir, is another excellent singer. He is a lyric tenor with enough heft to move into Puccini with ease. His voice is also beautifully placed and his ability to float a soft sound brought the house down on Tuesday. He proved that a tenor could wow the audience with a soft sound just as easily as he can with a squelando ringing high note.
Christopher Magiera, as Zurga, does not have the same vocal gift of ideal placement of the voice as the other two. His sound lacks the ring that is imperative to he heard in the back of the opera house and his larynx is occasionally in a high position more usually associated with tenors. As a result, he sounded weaker that the rest of the cast on Tuesday, even though there is probably every bit as big a voice lurking in there somewhere. That aside, he is probably, by a slim margin, the best actor of the three. Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel couldn't resist showing off his ripped bod in the first act but covered him up later on.
Wayne Tigges, as the priest Nourabad, possesses a gigantic voice, but he has the hardest job in creating any semblance of a character. He did the best he could, blustering around and making pronouncements. Lighting director Rick Fisher did a fine job, but Mother Nature showed him up at every turn.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume was a distracting presence on Tuesday, with his constantly overly large gestures and frequent mirroring of his hands. He was hard to ignore and conductors should never trump the stage for the attention of the audiences. He got mostly good results. However, his sense of rubato, the give and take of the tempo, was so similar throughout the performance that it became a mannerism as opposed to entering mentally into the phrase.
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Tosca
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Arabella
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Maometto II
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's King Roger