By Patrick O’Brien
What brought Georges Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs de Perles) back with the force of Brahma? A sophomore effort from 1863 — the capstone that was Carmen was still a decade away — the opera has made up for a 150 year dry spell with a torrent of new productions in the last 20.
Lyric Opera of Chicago has stepped aboard, too, mounting this production from San Diego, directed by Andrew Sinclair, after a homegrown effort some 10 years ago.
Let’s take stock.
Is it the story? It’s the Three-Way Chance Meeting of Long-Ago Intimates and the Love Triangle That Ensues, between seaside tribe leader Zurga (Mariusz Kweiecień), his best friend Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), and visiting virgin priestess Leïla (Marina Rebeka). Nevertheless, the libretto, by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon, has often been singled out for being so ludicrously thin and implausible, and this in a medium that doesn’t rush to congratulate its wordsmiths. (Granted, the librettists did themselves no favors when they admitted they would’ve tried had they known of Bizet’s potential, like Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac of Carmen fame did.)
Is it the exotic setting? Nominally set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), it’s really for all intents and purposes set in any fantastical Long-Ago and Far-Away Setting, with heaping helpings of old-school “noble/barbaric” Oriental gooble gobble.
(Not to mention, as the program notes try to downplay, that the recent “barihunk” phenomenon, combined with the light dress of the opera’s characters, may account for some small part of the piece’s resurgence. Zandra Rhodes, from the fashion world, certainly cooks up eye-candy here with a wondrous world of clashing scribble textures and vivid colors, lit handsomely by Ron Vodicka.)
Is it its themes of friendship tested? Love sacrificed? Individual satisfaction versus the well-being of the group? Even how quickly a “civilized” society harbors a taste for blood? Tales as old as time itself, sure, but none really rise out of the narrative soup and take full command. (See above: librettists not trying.)
So, what is it, then, that brought back The Pearl Fishers from sea and into our opera houses again?
It’s the music, stupid.
Sophomore music, to be sure. Music still learning to find its own voice apart from its influences. (Here, primarily, Wagner and his orchestral texturing.) But sophomoric? No. “Au fond du temple saints,” the charged duet of testily renewed friendship between the male leads does indeed belong on a shortlist of greatest opera hits, and Kweiecień and Polenzani certainly give it everything. But let’s not forget “Je crois entendre encore,” Nadir’s aria of recollected love, which is not easily forgotten once its haunting high air floats through the ear. “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre,” Rebeka’s aching recounting of love in a shadow? It’s a treasure trove.
And with the estimable Sir Andrew Davis in charge? Bizet sails on, riding out the rough and sitting prettily atop a glassy calm.
That’s why you bring THE PEARL FISHERS back.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “The Pearl Fishers” through December 10 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. Tickets are available at (312) 332-2244 or at lyricopera.org.