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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 43
Bizet's Pearl Fishers again?
Arts & Entertainment
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Bizet's Pearl Fishers again?

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
PEARL FISHERS
OPENING NIGHT CAST
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
October 17 (and 10/21, 24, 28 & 31)


Seattle Opera has made an admirable effort (it's third in 30 years) to make a pretty boring opera, Bizet's youthful Pearl Fishers, entertaining. When the plot is ridiculous and the music is only sporadically interesting, it's up to the staging to save the evening. Colorful, playful, and appropriate sets by Zandra Rhodes helped keep things lively and fun in Saturday's opening night show. Alice Bloch, in her review of Sunday's 'second cast' matinee performance in this week's SGN, has detailed these and other visual elements, and I completely agree with her. I also share her view that the conducting by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak was uninspired, lacked nuance and failed to keep stage and pit together. One knows from years of excellence that it wasn't the fault of the Seattle Opera Chorus that coordination with the orchestra was often poor. The problems plagued both performances.

For these two performances, different singers shared the three main roles. By far the best music is given to the tenor and the baritone, and the primary focus of the opera from the very beginning is the bromance between them. Indeed, the most thrilling melody is that of their duet, in which they profess their commitment to each other. In her review, Bloch saw right through the aggressively heterosexual, even homophobic, direction of Andrew Sinclair. Compare this staging of that duet, with the two men on opposite sides of the stage, to the lovely portrayal by Ben Heppner and Greer Grimsley of the intense bond between Tristan and Kurwenal in Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde as directed by Francesca Zambello. Neither bond need be homoerotic, but Zambello showed that you don't need to sterilize them either! As if to beef up the baritone's manifest manliness, Sinclair even tosses in a gratuitous attempted rape of the soprano.

Saturday's tenor, Canadian John Tessier, as Nadir, had the ideal voice for this French light-tenor role. He can float beautiful soft high notes and caress the lovely lines Bizet gave him to sing. But, perhaps because of the seemingly unsubtle conducting, Tessier did not appear at his best. He seemed to force his voice a bit to be heard over the orchestra. Likewise, soprano Maureen McKay, as Léïla, seemed awkward vocally and in her movement in exotic costumes. Although she did warm up as the show went on, her vibrato lent an unpleasant edge to her voice.

And then there's the amazing baritone of another Canadian, Brett Polegato, as Zurga. His powerful voice comes at you like a buzz saw...almost frightening in its volume and intensity. While not especially beautiful, his sound is expressive. I was also impressed by how, during the duet with John Tessier, he graciously tamed his inclination to sing at top volume, so that the tenor line was never lost.

Making his Seattle debut in the smaller role of Nourabad, a priest, New Zealander Jonathan Lemalu was frustrating. His voice appears big, warm, and impressive, but his projection of that splendor is faulty, with missing notes for no apparent reason. What we got was choppy sound, with nothing approaching a legato line. I want better from him.

Jonathan Dean, in his fine article in the program notes, makes the point that this long-neglected opera is now becoming more popular in part because its focus on the bromance is only recently more comfortable to modern audiences than in earlier, more homophobic eras. I would certainly agree, but for me this early effort by Bizet fails on too many fronts to be worth seeing more than once. The music, composed 12 years before Carmen, has only sporadic charm (unlike his brilliant student Symphony in C, written when he was 17!). The plot, even with 'orientalism' tossed in, is too poorly managed to sustain interest.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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