Ten years before Carmen—which is understandably considered the most beloved opera of all time—Georges Bizet produced The Pearl Fishers. It stands as what is surely one of the most impressive first attempts at a full-scale opera in the history of the form. Though it does suffer from a story that resembles a combination of Disney (minus the singing animals) and Gilbert & Sullivan (minus the laughs), the composer managed to hang some of the 19th Century’s finest operatic moments on a dangerously thin wire of plot.
Last night at Bass Performance Hall, the Fort Worth Opera opened its annual spring festival with Bizet’s introductory and less beloved work. The risky choice demonstrated that, in the right hands, Pearl Fishers can work, and work spectacularly well at that.
Now, regarding that quasi-plot: Set in pre-colonial Sri Lanka, the story deals exclusively with a romantic triangle featuring one baritone—Zurga, a simple but charismatic fisherman; one tenor—Nadir, a simple but charismatic hunter; and one soprano—Leïla, a girl-next-door type and a celibate high priestess. There are no subplots here, and scant character development besides.
Save for Leïla’s avowed celibacy, the only interesting thing about this triangle is the close relationship between Zurga and Nadir, which ultimately leads to the one of the most remarkable all-male duets in opera. I won’t spoil the plot here, but everybody knows who gets the girl when it comes down to tenor versus baritone.
There’s a small role for bass, which finds Justin Hopkins in a commanding performance as a high priest. While there is nothing for mezzo-soprano, Bizet would eventually make up for that deficiency in Carmen.
With such a meager plot moving things along, everything else must be perfect. To that end, Bizet composed a score that anticipates the more successful aspects of Carmen: brilliantly lean orchestrations, magnificent solo ensembles (the final trio starts out like Gounod and ends like Mahler), grand choral scenes, and one grateful aria after another. On opening night, the involved forces likewise did their part. Soprano Hailey Clark, as Leïla, possesses a fluid, flexible voice; suitable for a role that looks fondly back at the florid bel canto era of the early 19th century. Vocally, this predicted the verismo heroines of Puccini’s work an epoch later.
As Nadir, tenor Sean Panikkar produced a beautiful, nuanced tone across his range. Lee Poulis matched him with a golden-hued baritone, and they blended magically in their duet. It was almost to the point that you had to wonder why they didn’t ditch Leila and run off together. Conductor Joe Illick and the Fort Worth Symphony clearly delineated the fine points of Bizet’s score, capturing the ready momentum it provided, in spite of a lame libretto.
Stage director and choreographer John de los Santos once again proved more than capable when faced with a tough assignment. His previous directorial credits for the Fort Worth Opera include a delightfully edgy Mikado in 2011, and a psychologically rich Carmen in 2010. Working on the sleek, steeply raked stage designed by Roberto Oswald, Santos understands the algebra of moving individual bodies, as well as groups of entire groups for maximum effect. He has a gift for making thirty-odd people like look hundreds. He likewise succeeded in his genuine, integrated, and impressive choreography. That’s generally missing in operatic productions in these parts, even when specifically called for in the composer’s instructions.
Incidentally, this is one operatic production that actually lived up to the steamy visual element promised in its advance publicity image. Both male stars are bare-chested and buff throughout the performance—just like the model in the poster.