Georges Bizet was a tragic and in some ways frustrating musical figure. At both ends of his career — at the age of 17 and just before his death at age 36 — he produced works of great genius: the wonderful Symphony in C and, two decades later, the incomparable Carmen. He didn’t live to know of the latter’s huge success.
In between these two works he produced a lot of music, but never scaled the heights he reached with his best compositions. The work in which he came closest is arguably his opera The Pearl Fishers, which the Santa Fe Opera is producing this summer.
Friday night’s performance confirmed previous impressions. The Pearl Fishers has plenty of pleasant music, it’s consistent in its inspiration and skill. Yet hindered by a rather silly plot, it never truly soars.
Set in Ceylon, the opera concerns two men who fall in love with the same woman but give her up rather than sacrifice their friendship. One goes on to be elected king by a group of villagers who make their living by diving for pearls. The other shows up after a year’s absence to renew their friendship.
A virgin priestess arrives as the protector of the villagers. To their dismay, the two friends recognize her as the woman they fell in love with. This time things turn ugly, with the king (backed by infuriated villagers) sentencing both his ex-friend and the priestess to death for breaking vows of chastity.
Then the king has a change of heart, starts a fire to distract the villagers, and the guilty couple escape.
Santa Fe has quite a decent cast for this nonsense. Tenor Eric Cutler as Nadir (the friend who wins the girl) is blessed with a voice that has plenty of heft yet is basically lyrical. As costumed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel as well as in his natural physique, he could pass for Indiana Jones (there‘s even a Temple of Doom).
Baritone Christopher Magiera as Zurga (the king-friend) and soprano Nicole Cabell as Leila (the priestess) also possessed convincing vocal prowess and physical presence (Reiffenstuel favors bare-chested men and exposed-midriff women; this is a production in which the singers had better look good).
Bass Wayne Tigges is strong in the thankless role of Nourabad, a spoil-sport high-priest villain.
Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design is dominated by a huge picture frame which divides the stage into two halves, front and rear. The frame at one point tilts dangerously. It’s not clear what this signifies, but at least it’s dramatic. So is the huge mass of debris after what appears to be an earthquake, or maybe a tsunami.
Stage director Lee Blakeley moves his forces well, and conductor Emmanuel Villaume draws dramatic and atmospheric sounds from the Santa Fe orchestra and large chorus.
The Pearl Fishers will be repeated on Aug. 13, 22 and 25.
Next season, Santa Fe Opera will present Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s La Traviata, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago and Oscar (the world premiere of an opera by Theodore Morrison based on events in the life of Oscar Wilde).
There will also be two special concerts: On Aug. 4 the company will celebrate the 200th birthday of Wagner and the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten, and on Aug. 18 there will be a concert in honor of Stravinsky, who had a close association with the company in its early years.
Photos by Ken Howard