The world of nineteenth-century French opera had a lot in common with Hollywood. With its escapist setting in an imaginary "ancient Ceylon" and its formulaic triangle of sexual jealousy, The Pearl Fishers would have probably sunk into obscurity as just another blandly conventional product of its era had an ambitious young Georges Bizet — a former child prodigy — not been looking for a career breakthrough.
In the inevitable comparisons to Carmen, Pearl Fishers often gets brushed aside as a kind of youthful warming up, hampered by the uninspired libretto of EugÃ¨ne Cormon and Michel CarrÃ©. What's most attractive about the current production under way at Seattle Opera is how it trusts the instincts of the 24-year-old Bizet. Here he is already in control of a magnificent gift for lyrical characterization, making these two-dimensional figures bloom from within. His music serves as a vehicle enabling the opera's fantasy — tellingly, Bizet's sound world indulges only sparingly in faux "oriental" references.
The production, which originated at Philadelphia Opera, abounds in muted, pastel touches, with beautifully judged lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis that spends the entire second act in a range of nighttime shades. Shimmering suggestions of waves against a scrim and cable-borne figures perform an aerial/"underwater" ballet during the prelude that will make you think you're watching a sneak preview of the summer's Rhinedaughters waiting in the wings.
Richard St. Clair's unfussy costumes and Boyd Ostroff's clean, simple set of a painted lagoon, curtains, and votive fragments seem more neoclassical than South Asian — a nice counterpart to the floating ease of Bizet's bel canto-inspired melodies. It all sets a tone for the production that is languid, reflective but uncomplicated, set in dream time.
Director Kay Walker Castaldo dials up this tone to advantage in such scenes as the wonder-paced arrival of the new Brahman priestess Leila, who will play the opera's unwitting femme fatale. But she fails to highlight the corresponding passion where it is most needed — above all in the famous Act One duet establishing the loyal friendship between Zurga and Nadir, who also happen to be rivals for the forbidden love of Leila (her Vestal Virgin-like status doesn't preclude a sensually revealing costume once she has taken up her post on the temple heights).
By contrast, moments of hyperactive excitement seem arbitrary interpolations: in the Norma-like climax, as the lovers are about to be sacrificed, the bloodthirsty crowd suddenly begins writhing in social frenzy. Certainly a worthwhile dramaturgical point could be made about the chorus as a collective id, or the way Bizet seems to show religion and eros as two sides of the same coin, both having a dangerously destructive potential. But that didn't seem, at least to me, to be the point. Peggy Hickey's choreography, too, is stylish and eye-catching but somehow doesn't feel dramatically integrated.
No compelling dramatic revelations then. But the production's real strengths lie in its musical values, which are rooted in an exceptionally fine gold cast (I haven't been able to catch the silver cast for comparison). The new king Zurga is the only character who is portrayed with any dimension, struggling with his roles as friend, leader, and unrequited lover. Christopher Feigum could tap into more colors, but his fluent baritone carries the emotional weight of the role convincingly.
William Burden's return to Seattle Opera as the tenor Nadir is a treat. It's wonderful to watch this artist grow with each role; I was deeply moved by his Captain Vere in Billy Budd at last summer's Santa Fe Opera Festival. Burden phrases a tad too self-consciously at times — an easy temptation for such an interesting artist — but produces ravishing articulations of his character's melancholy. Patrick Carfizzi brings unpretentious gravity to his role as the outraged high priest Nourabad.
But the evening's real splendor is Mary Dunleavy's Leila. The weight of her soprano is a bit unusual for this French role, but she uses it to attractive advantage, bringing, for example, an unexpected substance and depth of color to what could be mere coloratura fluff in her Act One incantation. Through the mostly static second act, she holds the audience captive, her confrontation with Zurga in the finale crowning this memorable portrayal.
The chorus plays an important framing role and sings with great variety. Balance with the orchestra, however, was a problem on Wednesday night. From the pit, Gerard Schwarz was only intermittently successful in getting the "big picture" of the Act One ensembles preceding the famous duet to focus properly — admittedly theÂ least interesting bits of Bizet's score.
In contrast, Schwarz coaxed luscious, chamber music-like solos from the orchestra that showed a keen attention to the details that give Bizet's melodies such personality. You came to sense, for example, how the recurrent theme of the friendship duet also evokes the goddess of the two friends' desire, Leila; their friendship is always presented in relation to her, but from shifting angles. Perhaps this is what lay behind the charge — so odd to our ears — that was lobbed at Bizet by one critic, of Pearl Fishers as too "modernist."