REVIEW by David Gregson: May 4, 2008.
Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), the final offering of San Diego Opera’s 2008 season, features the local debut of two remarkable artists – American tenor Charles Castronovo and his real-life bride, Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina. These are singers you will not want to miss. They form a memorable trio of stars along with American baritone, Malcolm MacKenzie. They are all grandly supported by San Diego Symphony musicians responding to conductor Karen Keltner’s gratifyingly propulsive reading of the score. The show is neatly directed by Andrew Sinclair and packed with fun faux-tribal dance rituals choreographed by John Malashock.
The now famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) décor and costumes by Zandra Rhodes seem to have been tweaked a bit here and there, and they look better and brighter than ever. Rhodes’ storybook exoticism perfectly suits an opera libretto in which the cultural premises are bogus to begin with. The Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) envisioned by Bizet and his librettists, Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon, has and never has had any basis in reality. For getting Asia really wrong, few things can equal 19th century opera. Heavy-duty tomes have been written on this subject – and I can recommend the late Edward Wadie Saïd’s Orientalism (1978) – but more especially his Culture and Imperialism (1993).
Another myth, almost as strong as the Gallic fantasy of a sensual, perfumed, mysterious East, is the persistent one that The Pearl Fishers is a “one-tune opera” – that is to say, it only has one good number in it, namely the celebrated duet for tenor and baritone, “Au fond du temple saint.” Many, many years ago I can recall hearing Jim Svejda, KUSC’s classical music guru, advance this idea on one of his radio shows. His thesis, uttered in his usual sepulchral tones, was that far too many operas are pure, unadulterated junk — except for one transcendent number. Then he proceeded to play an hour of jewels he had extracted from the musical manure piles — Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers being one of those stink heaps.
I often wonder if he has changed his view now that the opera is being performed more frequently all over the world. Yes, much of the score is banal– but pearl after pearl is strung along that cheap rope of twine. “Au fond du temple saint” comes very early on in Act One, and it is a simple but ravishing tune that could penetrate a heart of stone. You can never get the harmonies of the two men out of your head. Castronovo and MacKenzie, who made an excellent impression in this number, also had the luxury of singing the “inauthentic” version in which the big tune is repeated at the conclusion – not the case in Bizet’s original score.
Not long after “Au fond du temple saint” comes a to-die-for tenor moment, “Je crois entendre encore,” a dreamy aria that climbs up into some fearsome legato head tones. Castronovo is sublime on this one. Lyric tenors like Castronovo do not need to take their shirts off to make you swoon – although his hairy, bare chest has been a part of SDO’s ad campaign from the get-go. The things singers have to do these days!
Next comes Leïla’s prayer and “Comme autrefois dans la nuit somber” — and few light lyric sopranos are blessed with Ekaterina Siurina’s gorgeous timbre and sense of pitch. Perhaps her French is not flawless, but I could understand her words. She also, as they say, looks the role. And no sooner has she seduced us visually and aurally, Nadir begins his lovely offstage serenade, “De mon amie fleur endormie” – soon followed by a truly beautiful duet, “Ton coeur n’as pas compris le mien.”
And so this opera goes all the way to the end. It’s more like unadulterated pleasure than unadulterated trash. True, the melodrama – and that’s what it is for certain – is on the level of one of those old movie jungle serials full of restless natives and people being tied to palm trees. If you are one that believes opera is drama – you need to think Maria Montez and Jon Hall, not Sophocles.
Brazilian basso José Gallisa made a solid impression as the high priest, Nourabad. Dorothy Randall got some impressive work out of the chorus. And I would hate to forget mentioning Rod Vodicka, the outstanding lighting designer — although almost everybody including the best critics seem to forget a lighting designer’s all-important contribution. If you’ve ever been on a movie set, you know nothing happens until the lighting is right – and effective opera lighting is even harder.
Zurga: Malcolm MacKenzie
Nadir: Charles Castronovo
Leïla: Ekaterina Siurina
Nourabad: José Gallisa
Conductor: Karen Keltner
Director: Andrew Sinclair
Choreophrapher: John Malashock
Scenic Designer: Zandra Rhodes
Costume Designer: Zandra Rhodes
Lighting Designer: Ron Vodicka
Wig and Makeup Designer: Steven W. Bryant
Acting Chorus Master: Dorothy Randall
Principal Pianist: Christopher Cano
Supertitles: Carol Palca
Diction Coach: Karen Keltner
Performance dates : May 3 (7 p.m.), May 6 (7 p.m.), May 9 (8 p.m.), May 11 (2 p.m.)