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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 43
Pearl Fishers: Visually stunning, but caught in a bad bromance
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Pearl Fishers: Visually stunning, but caught in a bad bromance

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
PEARL FISHERS
SECOND CAST
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
October 18 (and 10/30)


To distract the audience from one of the most ridiculous plots in opera (and that's saying a lot), a successful production of Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers requires several elements: gorgeous, opulent sets and costumes; an inventive choreographer and a company of skilled dancers; a fine orchestra and chorus led by a first-class conductor; and a superb light tenor to play Nadir, the character with the most challenging music to sing. If the soprano and baritone playing Léïla and Zurga - both of whom love Nadir - can sing and act well, that's a bonus.

The 'second cast' performance I attended certainly offered the bonus. In her Seattle Opera debut, soprano Elizabeth Zharoff unfurled a shimmering, expressive vocal line, including the best trills I've heard in a long time. She also moved with uncommon grace and wrapped a sari onstage like nobody's business.

Baritone Keith Phares showed off a strong voice and a commanding physical presence, as well as acting chops that almost made Zurga's frequent, drastic changes of mood believable.

Anthony Kalil has a fine tenor voice, but it's not a light voice, and he seemed miscast as Nadir. Apart from a few intonation problems early in the opera, which I attributed to opening-performance jitters, he sang well.

Baritone Joo Won Kang was impressive in the smaller role of Nourabad, which is normally sung by a bass or bass-baritone.

But the real star of this production is set and costume designer Zandra Rhodes, whose zany, colorful fabrics created a magical atmosphere of sensuality and playfulness. The lighting designed by Ron Vodicka completed the visual beauty of the production and enhanced the dance sequences (splendidly choreographed by John Malashock). Two scenes in Act I were particularly stunning visually: the processional entrance of the veiled priestess Léïla, borne on a litter; and the preparation of her bed chamber - flower petals and pillows everywhere - by her attendants. Both of these scenes featured sets and costumes of brilliant orange and pink; the effect was pure enchantment.

Less enchanting was the conducting of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, which failed to keep the orchestra and chorus in sync. And less enchanting still were some decisions of the stage director, Andrew Sinclair. One of the charms of this opera is its depiction of the love between the tenor and baritone characters. In his essay for the printed program ('Bizet's Now-Beloved Bromance'), Seattle Opera dramaturg Jonathan Dean writes, 'This opera is about the two men and their relationship.' Unfortunately, Sinclair doesn't seem to see it that way, instead favoring an aggressively heterosexual interpretation.

The Act I tenor-baritone duet, 'Au fond du temple saint,' is by far the most famous music in the opera. Although the two men begin by singing of their love for the same woman, they then declare their love and loyalty to each other: 'Que rien ne nous sépare!' ('Let nothing separate us!') The melodic and harmonic beauty of this duet makes it a favorite of opera fans everywhere, and the duet's unmistakable homoeroticism makes it a particular favorite of Gay men. (The equivalent for women is the soprano-mezzo 'flower duet' in Léo Delibes' Lakmé, used as the theme music of Patricia Rozema's Lesbian movie I've Heard the Mermaids Singing.)

In Sinclair's staging, the two men greet each other with hostility, not friendship. In the English caption for this production, Zurga describes Nadir as 'my former friend,' as though there has been a rift between them. (A correct translation of the French text 'l'ami de ma jeunesse' would be 'the friend of my youth,' an expression of affection, not estrangement.) Then Zurga refuses to shake Nadir's proffered hand, and most of the duet takes place with the two men at opposite ends of the stage. The music tells us that they love each other, but the director tells us that they don't.

Not only does Sinclair downplay the male bond at the core of this opera, he transforms Zurga from a conflicted, unhappy character into a rapist, without any justification in the text. I watched with horror as Zurga tore off Léïla's sari, threw her to the ground, and assaulted her, while she sang words of love for Nadir and gave no indication that she was aware of what was being done to her - because in the libretto, no violence is done to her in this scene.

The Pearl Fishers has a poorly written libretto going against it at best, but nothing in that libretto is as ridiculous as Sinclair's reinterpretation of it.

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