Lyric Opera of Chicago’s spectacularly colorful and glitzy new production of The Pearl Fishers, which opened on Sunday, seems to date from the era before Orientalism became a dirty word.
Tropical vegetation in bewildering profusion, veils, headdresses and turbans in pink and orange and violet, a glowing tropical sun that does not move for 45 minutes, though it does gradually attain sunset hues, a blue temple with bosomy goddesses frescoed about the cavernous ceiling, and dances in John Malashock’s version of Kathakali style (or what I imagine is Kathakali style, and I’m seen very little of it)—this is fairy tale opera in old Ceylon (and not Sri Lanka by any means).
And this is appropriate. Pearl Fishers is not a commentary on imperialism and Third World slum life. Bizet and the characters he created in music—just three ordinary people in love, dealing with personal jealousies and religious taboos—have no interest in overcrowded tenements or air pollution. The tenor gets the soprano, mais naturellement, but the baritone dies nobly, center stage, and you know how much more that means to him.
What a delight to relax and be entertained by opulent color, elaborate dance and some damned good singing. The production is directed by Andrew Sinclair, the attention-seizing sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes, and company music director Sir Andrew Davis, on a night off from the resounding Ring, purveys Bizet’s sensuous tunes and atmospheric flutes with great charm and without condescension.
The dances were a very big deal. There were dances with knives, dances with cudgels, dances with masks, dances with animal heads, creating an exotic milieu in which the simple story and the dilemma of the protagonists can gather some exotic weight. They were inventive and distracting in a rather static opera.
Over the years from his Mozartean beginnings, Matthew Polenzani’s tenor has noticeably gained in power without losing the ease of soaring phrase required for “Je crois entendre encore.” His Nadir, no pun intended, goes from strength to strength.
He was well partnered by Marina Rebeka’s cool, lucid soprano, the suave elegance of her fioritura and the alluring romance of “Comme autrefois.” In Leïla’s confrontation with Zurga. As with her Norma at the Met last month, Rebeka’s Leïla loses none of its liquid quality when the violent situation rouses her to fill an enormous theater, and her confrontation with the Zurga of Mariusz Kwiecien was thrilling music-theater.
Kwiecien sang through a cold that sometimes dried out his amiable baritone, but “Au fond du temple saint” was matinee idol quality from both gentlemen, and he was extremely effective, with a minimum of shrillness, in the scena that begins Act III. Nothing, of course, inhibits his anguished acting. Andrea Silvestrelli sounded hoarse and unpleasing as Nourabad.