When his librettists finally heard the music that Bizet wrote fo "The Pearl Fishers," they were ashamed. If they had known how good the music was going to be, they told the 24-year-old composer, they would have written a better libretto.
The plot of "The Pearl Fishers," which the Washington Opera is staging through next month at the Kennedy Center, is indeed a mess. The scene is exotic -- an imaginary Ceylon set sometime before colonialism. Two friends are in love with the same vestal virgin; there's a nasty high priest who positively gloats at the idea of torturing young girls should they violate their vows; and there's a chain of coincidences that would strain the credulity of anyone not addicted to the daily soaps.
But if Bizet had written nothing other than the first act tenor-baritone duet as the two friends swear eternal friendship, he would be entitled to a place among the great composers. And the rest of the opera is filled with music almost that good -- beautifully written choruses and arias that are combined with orchestral writing of such nuance and color that they are text-book illustrations of the glories of French music.
The Washington production by the Argentine team of director and set designer Roberto Oswald and costumer Anibal Lapiz is nice to look at, if a little campy. (The midriff-wearing female dancers and loincloth-clothed males often seem uncomfortably close to a parody of a Rudolph Valentino movie and I could have done without the scrim behind which the action takes place.) And the singing and orchestral playing (under conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg) are good enough to remind one why "The Pearl Fishers" is held in such esteem by connoisseurs.
The best of the singers is the tenor who sings Nadir. Jianyi Zhang is a young man with the sort of future in whom orphans and widows should be encouraged to invest. It's one of those honey-and-lemon voices that clutches the heart the moment the singer opens his mouth. The voice is smoothly produced -- he nailed the stratospheric high notes in his first act aria with uncanny ease and control -- and he's the kind of singer that gives a listener the impression that he is singing only for that listener.
Unfortunately, Zhang's baritone counterpart, Eugene Perry as Zurga, had nothing like that impact. His voice is lovely, but it has a veiled quality that contrasted poorly with Zhang's in the great duet. Katherine Luna was a competent, if not always sufficiently alluring, priestess, and basso Hao Jiang Tian made a most imposing high priest.
What: 'The Pearl Fishers'
When: Jan. 6, 8, 10, 17, 22, 27, and 29; Feb. 9, 11 and 13.
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.
Call: (202) 416-7800.