Opera review | A polished "Pearl Fishers" brings magic to McCaw Hall
Kay Walker Castaldo's production of Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" exalts a too-often-underestimated work, and justifies Seattle Opera's claim to be one of the world's finest companies. Gerard Schwarz conducts; Mary Dunleavy, William Burden and Christopher Feigum lead the first cast.
Special to The Seattle Times
"The Pearl Fishers"Presented by Seattle Opera, through Jan. 24, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $25-$172 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).
More than ever, after witnessing the first night of "The Pearl Fishers" at the Seattle Opera, I am convinced that this product of Bizet's 20s is every bit as wonderful an opera as the one — "Carmen" — that everyone tells us is his masterpiece.
The other day, in an earlier article, I suggested that the characters in "The Pearl Fishers" are more three-dimensionally human. Kay Walker Castaldo's production bore me out — with the help of superbly committed performances from all three of the participants in the love triangle at the center of the plot.
Along with Boyd Ostroff's sets, which capture the enchantment the 19th century found in the then-mysterious island of Ceylon, and Richard St. Clair's graceful costumes, I loved Castaldo's production when I first saw it in Philadelphia a few years ago. But this Seattle restaging puts that recollection in the shade, thanks first of all to the new lighting design by Neil Peter Jampolis, who is clearly a genius in his field. Beth Kirchhoff's chorus, too, was both musically and dramatically impeccable. The dancers, led by Bobby Briscoe and Lisa Gillespie, carried out Peggy Hickey's brilliant choreography with stunning virtuosity, and Geoffrey Alm directed a truly frightening fight between Nadir and Zurga, the two rivals for Leïla's love. And all kinds of wonderful details have been sharpened up or added in this new version of the production.
Nadir and Leïla were both holdovers from the original Philadelphia staging. Mary Dunleavy again shaped a touching picture of the priestess whose heart cancels the force of her vow of chastity. She sang with impressive freedom, and with an appealing mezzo-ish tint to the voice, and she moved well. The role of Nadir finds William Burden, a company favorite, at the zenith of his powers (if you'll forgive the paradox): there are now, and surely have been ever, few tenors who could match his combination of athleticism, finely focused tone and sheer charm.
As Zurga, the most complex character in the story, baritone Christopher Feigum proved a worthy partner to those two, singing strongly and portraying the emotional turmoil of the role with compelling intensity. The only other solo role, that of the priest Nourabad, gave scope to Patrick Carfizzi's powerful bass-baritone.
All of this was enhanced enormously by orchestral playing of the highest caliber. Gerard Schwarz marshaled his forces to perfection, and Susan Carroll's horn solo, heightened by some perfectly judged silent pauses, turned Leïla's Act 2 aria, for me, into the musical highlight of the evening, fully matching the beauty of the more widely admired Nadir-Zurga duet in Act 1.
I can only conclude by urging anyone with the slightest interest in opera to buy a ticket forthwith. This is a production that matches the quality of a too often underestimated work, and justifies Seattle Opera's claim to be one of the world's finest companies. Magical is the word that sums it up best.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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