Georges Bizet declared that he wasn't interested in composing anything chic. He wanted to produce "fantasy, boldness, unexpectedness, enchantment - above all, tenderness." With The Pearl Fishers, he got three out of five, not bad considering that this was his first significant work for the stage.
Bold and unexpected it isn't, but, as Washington National Opera's production makes plain, The Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs de Perles) deserves its occasional place in the sun. And this staging, with sets and costumes by noted British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, originally for San Diego Opera, certainly shines a prismatic light on all the fantasy, enchantment and tenderness that the piece has to offer.
This is one of those operas where you have to overlook the plot, which has more credibility holes than some political ads that have been running. Still, like a fun B-movie, The Pearl Fishers provides just enough of a narrative to keep things interesting.
In brief, two Ceylonese pearl-fishing pals, Zurga and Nadir, fall in love with the same woman, Leila, but agree to forget her in order to save their friendship. Fatefully, Leila, now committed to being a virgin priestess, enters their community. Nadir and Leila fall in love; a jealous Zurga condemns them to death but weakens in his resolve at the end.
Lots of coincidence, and not a little silliness, is involved in the story. Happily, the score is almost always persuasive, even when Bizet goes in for some Offenbach or Gounod knockoffs.
The tenor/baritone duet in the first act, Au fond du temple saint, is loved by people who have never seen this opera or any opera; it's one of the most seductive melodies in the repertoire (with good reason, Bizet brings the tune back a few times later on). Even more intoxicating, to my ears, is the subsequent tenor aria in that act, Je crois entendre encore, a thing of delicate, sensual beauty.
Charles Castronovo, as Nadir, delivered that aria with remarkable suavity on opening night at the Kennedy Center. The tone was tender and subtly shaded. He held his own as well in Au fond du temple saint and was nicely matched by the vocal warmth and smoothness of Trevor Scheunemann as Zurga. Norah Amsellem produced limpid sounds and elegant phrasing as Leila. Denis Sedov, as high priest Nourabad, sounded hollow and indistinct. None of the principals revealed particularly distinctive acting skills.
The chorus was in admirable form, and the orchestra did firm, vibrant work for conductor Giuseppe Grazioli, whose phrasing could have used a little more nuance.
Nimbly executed choreography by John Malashock added to the atmosphere, already spiced up by the plethora of bright '60s colors applied by Rhodes to the characters and the fairy-tale, cut-out scenery (in some cases veering ever so slightly, and deliciously, toward the kitschy).
Director Andrew Sinclair kept the action mostly fluid and effective, but I wasn't convinced by his final touch involving Zurga's fate (a fate Bizet left unspecified). In an opera that looks and sounds so pretty, that denouement struck an off-kilter note.
Running concurrently with The Pearl Fishers is Washington National's solidly old-fashioned production of Verdi's La traviata. Last Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth Futral started off routinely as Violetta and didn't sound totally at ease. But she fleshed out the character to increasingly moving effect, achieving exceptional poignancy in the last act, and sang with great sensitivity and style.
As Alfredo, Arturo Chacon-Cruz proved a telling actor but needed more solidity and variety of tone. Lado Ataneli sang with considerable eloquence and a generally impressive sound as Germont. Marta Domingo's by-the-book stage direction got the job done. Dan Ettinger's conducting was on a higher level entirely, shaping a rhythmically elastic account of the score, rich in arresting, incisive detail.
if you go
The Pearl Fishers will be performed tonight and five more times through Oct. 7, La traviata on Saturday and three more times through Oct. 5 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets and information: 800-876-7372 or go to dc-opera.org.