Stage director Lee Blakeley’s 2012 production of The Pearl Fishers was widely acclaimed at its Santa Fe Opera premiere, and with good reason. His inspired concept focused on serious issues of power and responsibility, leadership and trust, and it was consistently implemented from start to finish, turning what can seem like a travelogue into a true human drama.
The opera returns as the second offering in the opera’s 2019 season, now under the direction of Shawna Lucey, a former member of the company’s apprentice program for technicians. The virtues of the original staging are intact, the choral singing is superb, and three of the four solo roles are very well performed. In a major misstep, the tenor portraying Nadir is badly miscast, which compromises several major scenes, including the celebrated “Friendship Duet.”
Six of Georges Bizet’s operas survive from his short career, but only Carmen and The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), staged when he was 24, are frequently performed today. The story, which takes place on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) looks slight on paper. Before the action begins, best friends and fellow pearl fishers Nadir and Zurga fell in love with Leïla, then renounced her to save their bond. After renewing that vow at the beginning of Act 1, though, she arrives at the pearl fishers’ camp as the veiled priestess who can protect the divers from the elements only through her continued chastity. Her identity is discovered, the love triangle is rekindled, and Nadir, being the tenor, wins out.
While many associate The Pearl Fishers with Zurga and Nadir’s expressive first act duet, Bizet’s lyrical score has much more to offer. Leïla, Nadir and Zurga each have a character-defining aria, and there are two affecting duets for Leïla and Nadir. Blakeley successfully solved the opera’s problematic Orientalism by eliminating as much of it as possible. There’s no frenetic dancing by torchlight, no drunken natives and not a loincloth in sight. We see everything through an enormous gilt picture frame, emphasizing that what remains is a 19th-century European take on an unfamiliar culture.
The casting of Corinne Winters as Leïla and Anthony Clark Evans as Zurga supported Blakeley’s concept. Winters’ flexible soprano combines a dramatic edge and a dusky timbre with long phrasing and secure high notes. Her Act 2 aria (“Comme autrefois”) was mesmerizing, with sustained and beautiful quiet singing at the end. Performed as she languidly brushed her hair, it was also an exercise in sexual expression and self-confidence.
A charismatic performer, Clark has a big and exciting baritone voice, also dark in tone and strong throughout his range. It’s clear why the pearl fishers unanimously vote him their leader as the opera begins, after he shrewdly negotiates absolute power. Zurga’s remorseful soliloquy at the beginning of Act 3 (“Oh Nadir, tendre ami”) gave Clark a chance to demonstrate his ability to sing softly with equal success.
Leïla and Zurga’s 12-minute confrontation duet in Act 3 (“Je frémis, je chancelle”) is the core of the opera and it was the evening’s musical and dramatic highlight. In it, Leïla discovers that she can go toe-to-toe with Zurga in intensity and command. The difference in their physical statures — he is burly and she petite — made her achievement all the more impressive.
Tenor Ilker Arcayürek’s Nadir was nowhere near the level of his compatriots. Vocally he embodied the French tenor tradition of 70 or 80 years ago — a voice of moderate size with a nasal quality and a wobble in louder passages. He also had difficulties locking on to the center of pitches. Arcayürek managed to achieve an affecting simplicity in his Act 1 romance (“Je crois entendre encore”), as he admits his passion for Leïla. But overall, he was badly outshone by Winters and Evans, especially in his duets with them. His acting was also problematic, with his overanxious wooing of the soprano leading to some unintended comic moments.
Robert Pomakov was Nourabad, the high priest who fails in guarding Leïla from the attentions of men. He offered a vivid interpretation of what is often a one-note character — weaselly, arrogant and sanctimonious as well as angry — and his hypocritical sexual interest in Leïla added a believable #MeToo moment to the evening.
The chorus of pearl fishers and their families is prominently featured throughout the opera — they have the title role, after all — and the apprentice singers, led by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston, became a primal force of nature, unleashing impressive waves of sound, especially during the storm that ends Act 2.
Timothy Myers emphasized dramatic contrasts in his conducting, with a wide range of dynamics, propulsive fast tempos and slower sections that at first seemed leisurely, but then built up suspense to intense climaxes. The orchestra played extremely well, with principal players and small groupings given a chance to shine via Bizet’s ear for unique instrumental combinations.
The scenery by Jean-Marc Puissant, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting by Rick Fisher offered a series of visually stunning tableaux, including a magical first entrance for Leïla, borne above the chorus aboard a gently rocking catamaran.