Bizet, Les pêcheurs de perles

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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.

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Ermione’s Searing Drama Comes Late but is Worth the Wait

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Rossini Opera Festival 2008

When ROF announced Ermione as its second new production for 2008, many Rossini fans couldn’t have been happier. This was only the second time ROF mounted the work since it flopped at its 1819 premiere at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. After the opera was withdrawn, the composer took a philosophical view of its failure. In the Escudier Brothers’ 1854 Rossini biography, the composer was quoted as saying, “Sooner or later you will see this (Ermione) again and then maybe the Neapolitan audience will acknowledge its mistake.” Still later, Rossini was asked if he would not like to have the work translated for the French stage, he replied, ” No…this is my little Italian William Tell, and it will only see the light of day again after I am dead.” It took until the 20th century for Rossini’s prophecy to be fulfilled.

The opera’s bad luck even seemed to infiltrate ROF’s 1987 production. The reader can learn all about the production’s troubles in Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars. The author relates a juicy behind-the-scenes story, one that opera lovers thrive on.

The reason for the Ermione‘s initial failure had nothing to do with its incisive libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. As Giovanni Carli Ballola points out in his article in ROF’s 2008 program, Tottola derived the plot from Racine’s Andromaque (1667,) and his “libretto evolves faithful to the spirit and quite often to the letter of the original, with the sole difference that Ermione instead of killing herself over the body of Pirro, as Racine has us learn from the lips of Pilade, faints on stage while Oreste, haunted by the Furies, is carried off by his companions.” Perhaps the strongest clue to the opera’s failure is given by Rossini himself. In his 1819 letter to his mother on January 19th, he admits, “I am fairly well on with my Ermione I’m afraid the plot is too tragic, but I couldn’t care less now I can say that the job’s nearly done.” But it’s certainly not too tragic for 21st century opera audiences.

The 2008 production was not without it flaws and really didn’t fulfill its dramatic promise until the last performance on August 21st. One would think the relentless emotional core which Rossini and Tottola created for this opera, would have exploded sooner in the run considering the talented line up of singers aided by conductor Roberto Abbado and director Daniele Abbado.

Ermione‘s story is basically about four people who are in love with the wrong person. Briefly, the story is as follows: Pirro, son of Achilles and King of Epirus has promised to marry Ermione, the daughter of Menelaus, but as the opera opens he has fallen in love with Andromaca, daughter of Hector. Ermione, wild with rage and tormented with jealousy, learns that Oreste was sent by the Greeks to convince Pirro to kill Andromaca’s son, Astianate, in order to prevent Troy’s resurgence. Ermione, recognizing Oreste’s deep love for her, convinces him to kill Pirro. Ermione, in one of opera’s great confrontational scenes, curses Oreste for carrying out her wishes. As he is being dragged away by his companions, Ermione, totally grief-stricken, collapes in agony.

In 2004, Abbado’s direction of Elizabetta regina d’Inghilterra, fit smoothly into Giovanni Carluccio’s set of a three-tiered chrome enclosure, but this time the director wasn’t able to move his performers as easily in Graziano Gregori’s spacious set. Outfitted with trap doors held up by cable, a revolving panel which got the leads and chorus on and off the set and a light green and a smoky white back wall brought a feeling of detachment to Rossini and Tottola’s emotionally charged opera. This atmosphere affected the singers also.

At the 16th and the 21st performances, Sonia Ganassi’s Ermione played out the same way. The mezzo seemed to be saving her voice for her Gran Scena which comes midway through the second act. Ironically, while waiting for that moment, she had to keep adjusting her pitch and breath control which detracted from the tormented character she later displayed. Antonino’s Siragusa’s Oreste had fire and commitment, but his voice takes on a nasal quality when forced. In his first act entrance, he handled his difficult cavatina, “Che sordo al mesto pianto,” with finesse, but obviously forgot that he was singing a duet with Ferdinand Von Bothmer’s Pilade and immediately broke character at its close with a big smile leaving Von Bothmer to acquiesce in silence. Gregory Kunde established Pirro’s royal privileges from the start, but the reach for high notes and the numerous runs in the role were too demanding for his present vocal state. Marianna Pizzolato’s Andromaca was vocally even and pleasing, but she lacked the character’s regal deportment. Roberto Abbado’s conducting didn’t have the necessary fire and involvement for Rossini’s abundantly rich orchestration.

But on the 21st, at the finale of Act One, in the short, reflective duet between Ermione and Oreste where the two souls commiserate over their unhappy fate, Ganassi and Siragusa brought a fervor to their singing that had been missing up to that point. This shift in intensity brought the opera to an explosive level in Act Two that started with Ermione’s Gran Scena and continued right through to the end. Without sacrificing any vocal quality, Ganassi and Siragusa threw caution to the wind and to everyone’s surprise and delight gave performances that were truly extraordinary. Even Abaddo was affected by this turn of events and whipped the Orchestra Del Teatro Comunale Di Bologna into a frenzied finale Rossini would have loved.

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ROF’s Maometto 11 Embraces the Music but Doesn’t Caress the Notes

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Rossini Opera Festival 2008

If the weather can stand as a metaphor for how well an opera production at the Rossini Opera Festival will play out during its run, then the tremendous downpour that reverberated throughout the Arena Adriatica was a bad omen. At the second performance of Michael Hampe’s production of Maometto 11 on August 15th, the rain hit the Arena’s dome like a pack of galloping horses that lasted nearly twenty minutes, trying the nerves of the performers and audience alike. This sudden event proved to be more exciting than what was happening on stage.

The singing is always uppermost in the minds of audiences that come to Pesaro, but the vocal efforts in this production only lived up to their expectations in part.

Bass Michele Pertusi is a favorite singer at ROF and judging by his two previous performances his popularity is warranted. As the Duke D’Orlow in Mario Martone’s 2006 production of Torvaldo e Dorliska, Pertusi was able to match his character’s strong emotions with great vocal insight. And in 2007′s La Gazza Ladra, Pertusi projected Gottardo’s character beyond the lighter touches many singers give this licentious mayor to a darker place where Gottardo’s wanton pursuit of Ninetta overwhelms his soul. Again the bass achieved this effect by using his talented vocal acumen.

Unfortunately, lightning did not strike a third time for Pertusi — at least not the kind that comes with a great performance. Both Michael Hampe’s exaggerated stage direction and Gustav Kuhn’s by-the-book conducting did not seem to provide Pertusi the comfort level he needed to give his Maometto the vocal dynamics and commitment to the text the bass always brings to his performances in Pesaro. Hampe kept Pertusi so busy carrying banners, changing costumes that required a lot of attention and overextended stage moves, he had a hard time concentrating on his singing. It was difficult to tell whether Pertusi’s voice has lost some of its vocal polish since last year or the overloaded stage business held him back. At the curtain calls on August 15th and 18th, the forced bravos on the one hand and the polite clapping on the other reflected the ambivalence in Petusi’s performance.

There were other vocal disappointments. Although mezzo soprano Daniela Barcellona received a big hand for her Act Two aria, “Non temer:d’un basso affetto,” the top part of her voice did not sound as secure as it has in the past. Also, Barcellona looked clumsy at times carrying out Hampe’s jagged stage directions. Marina Rebeka, who was featured in ROF’s 2007 presentation of Il viaggio a Reims, presented by Accademia Rossiniana, a training program for new singers, sang Anna, a major coloratura role loaded with dramatic and lyrical challenges. The soprano exhibited an easy agility and an expressive ‘fioriture,’ but she was hampered at times by Kuhn’s tendency to rush her music limiting her vocal appeal. The only one who escaped the rigidity of Hampe’s direction and rose above Kuhn’s heavy-hand was tenor Francesco Meli, who brought a sensitive and musical portrayal to Paolo Erisso, Anna’s harassed father who had to cope with his daughter’s undying love for Maometto while gathering his Venetian forces to keep the Turks from capturing the city. The tenor was not only able to satisfy Rossini’s vocal demands, but he was the only performer to really show what his character was feeling to the audience.

The opera’s plot, which is ably handled by librettist Cesare Della Valle, concern’s Anna’s deep love for a young man, Uberto, whom she had met previously in Corinth and now finds out is really Maometto. The opera hinges on their meeting up again in the Venetian colony, Negroponte, where her father, Erisso, the army’s commander, is trying to keep the Turks, led by Maometto, from capturing the city. Anna and her former lover, naturally are not able to reconcile their differences and Anna, at the opera’s end, kills herself rather than give in to Maometto and betray her father. If the story strikes a conventional ring, Rossini’s musical innovations take the work to new heights. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera edited by Stanley Sadie, states “…in Maometto 11, we find a work that brings together Rossini’s pre-eminent gift for music of immediate appeal and vocal splendor with a considered and profound understanding of musical and dramatic structure.” And ROF’s Artistic Director Alberto Zedda, in his superb essay in ROF’s 2008 program says, “Despite the grandeur of the historical pageant, Maometto 11 moves us through the intimate nature of its passions. Anna is the real protagonist: the feelings, the uncertainties, the transports and the terrors that rack her reveal a sensitivity differing from the great Romantic heroines only in her inability to sin for love’s sake.”

The musical and dramatic values revealed in these two quotes, unfortunately, were not fulfilled in this production, only to increase the heartache for what could have been. Not everyone agrees with these sentiments. For that reason, visit Opera News, November, 2008, for a contrasting viewpoint.

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