By James L Zychowicz
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, John Mauceri (conductor) Lyric Opera Center, Chicago 25.10.2007 (JLZ)
Director: Herbert Kellner?
Original Production: Nicolas Joël?
Original Designer: Hubert Onloup ?
Set Designer: Scott Marr
?Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler?
Chorus Master – Donald Nally
Leïla: Nicole Cabell?
Zurga: Nathan Gunn ?
Nadir: Eric Cutler ?
Nourabad: Christian van Horn???
The second of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s offerings for the 2008-2009 season, the current production of Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearlfishers) is striking for several reasons. As a revival of the production designed for the company’s 1997-1998 season, the set and staging certainly conveys the work’s original intentions, with deep blues and related hues that suggest the island of Ceylon, where the action takes place. The conception makes efficient use of the space on stage, providing both an expansive venue for the scenes requiring full ensembles, and also offering a comfortable setting for the numbers that involve the principals. In the casting, Lyric assembled some of the finest singers available for this work, and in doing so arrived at a memorable production.??
The narrative of Bizet’s Pearlfishers revolves around the rivalry between two friend for the love of the same woman, a situation complicated by a sworn oath of brotherhood between them. One of the men, Zurga, had been saved by the woman Leïla years before, and gave her as a token of gratitude. The other man, Nadir, had been friends with Zurga in their youth, and on returning to their village after an absence, Zurga renews his vow of brotherly friendship with him. When Leïla becomes the priestess in the pearlfishers’ village, the priest Nourabad affirms her role as sacred: she can neither reveal her personal identity nor take a lover while she holding the office, otherwise she faces death. At some point Nadir realizes that the priestess must be Leïla and seeks her out. Nourabad happens to witness the encounter and demands the lives of both Leïla and Nadir for this breach of vows. Out of friendship for Nadir, Zurga insists that as leader of the pearlfishers, he alone can sanction the deaths. Nevertheless, Nadir and Leïla are to be executed, and when Leïla speaks with Zurga, his feelings for her make him jealous of her love for Nadir. As a result Zurga denies Leïla’s pleas that Zurga spare Nadir. Instead he confirms he resolve to execute both of them. Resigned to the inevitable, Leïla returns the necklace to Zurga, so that Zurga can return it to her mother after she dies. This gesture calls to mind the sacrifice Leïla had made for Zurga, and the debt he owes her for saving his life. Despite risking his own execution my Nourabad, Zurga creates a distraction by setting fire to the village in order to allow Leïla and Nadir to escape.??
Drawing upon the emotional situations implicit in this narrative, Bizet fashioned an effective musical score that endures. Even so, the famous duet between Zurga and Nadir, “Au fond du temple saint” is known better than the rest of the opera and the striking placement of this engaging piece early in the opera stands out as one of Bizet’s bold strokes in this 1863 work. From the outset then, the audience is familiar with the intense bond of friendship between Zurga and Nadir, and Bizet is able to invoke that idea throughout the rest of the work by bringing back the music from the duet. These later quotations are not so much a Wagnerian element, but draw on the older operatic tradition of the “reminiscence motive,” recurring in the literal way that Bizet uses the idea. (By contrast, Wagner’s approach to Leitmotif implies a whole set of ideas that are developed in various ways and sometimes combine, unlike the more straightforward way that Bizet treats his thematic material.) Nevertheless, it is telling musical device in the final act when the reminiscence of “Au fonds du temple saint” shifts from the men to Nadir and Leïla, and thus foreshadows the dénouement.??
This production is fortunate in having four strong principals who deliver impressive performances. As Leïla, Nicole Cabell is outstanding in all three acts. Demanding as the role can be, Cabell is not only effective in executing the music, but persuasive in her embodiment of the role. Her first-act aria (“O Dieu Brahma!”) sounded effortless, with its ornate coloratura line contrasting with the more syllabic music from the chorus which sets the stage at the beginning of the scene or Zurga’s more declamatory music when he takes charge of the pearlfishers. Cabell’s depiction of the impassioned Leïla is crucial for the second act, and her work with Eric Cutler (Nadir) was well considered. The timbres of the two singers fitted together very convincingly, with some particularly effective middle register singing from Cabell when vacillating between her vows as priestess and her love for Nadir. In the ensuing love duet (“Ton coeur avait compris le mien”), Cabell was slightly difficult to hear her, due to some momentary over – enthusiasm from the orchestra which otherwise responded well to John Mauceri’s leadership. In the third act, the scene between Zurga and Leïla revealed more drama and Cabell demonstrated the Leïla’s resolve with great dignity and musical sense. When Bizet finally gives the the theme from “Au fond du temple saint” to Leïla, Cabell’s understated treatment of the passage was haunting.
??As Nadir, Eric Cutler played the role almost effortlessly. As demanding as the part can be, Cutler’s voice handled the sometimes difficult changes of register very well, in what some regard as a “mixed voice” role. He worked well with Nathan Gunn in the famous duet but was just as impressive when delivering his first aria “Des savanes et des forêts” with astounding accuracy. Cutler is well suited for the his role’s demands in vocal range. His upper register is secure and ringing, while his middle range is more resonant. In this sometimes treacherous part, Cutler is, above all, secure and reliable, demonstrating a fine stage presence to convey Nadir’s lyrical and more reflective aspects. In this regard, the sometimes subtle details he used to shape the part were wonderfully audible.??
Similarly, Nathan Gunn created a believable character as Zurga, making his music work very well indeed. In addition to his fine work with Cutler in the duet, the third act soliloquy “O Nir, tendre ami” was memorable for the fine emotional pitch that Gunn brought to the role. He was incisive without resorting to melodrama, a detail that is truly important for this work. Overall, Gunn approached this score with style and captured the work’s spirit with acting ability supporting his fine voice so comfortably, that the final resolution, upon realizing what he must ultimately do, became wholly believable. Familiar to Lyric audiences for roles he depicted in past seasons, such as the title character in Britten’s Billy Budd, Gunn left everyone with a strong impression of masterful work in The Pearlfishers.
??In the role of Nourabad, Christian van Horn was incisive, with clear enunciation delineating his character. His diction and resonant voice duly called attention to the role’s importance, which is significant as Nourabad’s actions propel the plot. His demands for justice precipitate the difficult decisions Zurga must make which in turn seal Zurga’s sad fate. A strong presence on stage, Van Horn thus brought the nesessary physical and vocal clarity to his entire performance. (Such clarity was not always so apparent in the otherwise well-rehearsed chorus. With the choral numbers setting the stage in several scenes, such detail is important to The Pearlfishers).??
Dating from two years before Richard Wagner’s iconic Tristan und Isolde, Bizet’s story of ill-fated love remains a moving work in its own right. While The Pearlfishers will never supplant the later Carmen in popularity, it remains a fine example of the Romantic tradition of French opera, an important part of the repertoire, which deserves all of the fine execution that Lyric Opera of Chicago gave the work. Conductor John Mauceri offered a fine reading of the score which allowed its many details to emerge readily. With its well thought out dramatic direction, this staging made Bizet’s Pearlfishers extremely effective and in many respects even memorable.