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Mariusz Kwiecień, Marina Rebeka, and Matthew Polenza [Photo by Andrew Cioffi]
06 Jan 2018

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its recent production of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled an ideal cast of performers who blend well into an imaginative and colorful production.

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Mariusz Kwiecień, Marina Rebeka, and Matthew Polenza [Photo © Andrew Cioffi]


The male lead characters Zurga and Nadir are sung by Mariusz Kwiecień and Matthew Polenzani. Leïla, the woman whom both men have sworn to forget, is Marina Rebeka. Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma, is sung by Andrea Silvestrelli. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is led by its music director, Sir Andrew Davis; the Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its chorus master, Michael Black. This production originated at San Diego Opera with sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes, lighting by Ron Vodicka, and choreography by John Malashock and Michael Mizerany. Ms. Rhodes and Messrs. Malashock and Mizerany make their debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago with these performances of The Pearl Fishers.

Before the start of the opera, a scrim covering the stage depicts graphically the fishers of pearls positioned on stilts and rendered in pastel shades suggesting a temperate climate. During the overture, marked by sensuous playing of strings and woodwinds, the scrim has raised allowing supernumeraries to indicate diving motions in the undulating band of simulated waters. The male chorus representing pearl fishers sings of their activities while dancers carry out spirited movements positioned in front of wildly colorful trees. All are interrupted by Zurga’s reminder of the current necessity to choose a leader with Mr. Kwiecień’s especially resonant description on “qui nous protège” (“one who will protect us”). Scarcely has Zurga accepted their acclamation as leader when Nadir returns from the wild. Mr. Polenzani initiates his reconciliation to Zurga and the others with excited pitches describing his encounters in the forest. Once the desire to remain is understood, Kwiecień urges Nadir with an optimistic rising intonation at “saluons le soleil” (“let us greet the sun”). Only when the chorus of fishermen retreats to leave the protagonists alone together can they recall frankly their previous discord. Both men offer to set aside rival emotions directed toward the same woman when Kwiecień declares “Mon coeur a banni sa folie.” (“My heart has banished its madness”) with a deep emotional pitch on the final word. Polenzani’s response introduces excellent, sustained legato phrasing when describing the final shared journey “aux portes de Candi” (“up to the gates of Candi”). Despite their reconciliation, these memories stir up past emotions, ultimately laying the foundation of the opera’s central conflict. Neither man has erased his attraction to the woman who is designated as “la déesse” in their subsequent lyrical display. This well-known duet, immediately following the scene and pledge of friendship, begins here softly as an evocation of individual, then shared memories. The sensory recollections for Kwiecień, “Je crois la voir encore” (“I can still see her”), and for Polenzani, “La foule … murmure tout bas” (“the crowd murmurs under its breath”), are declaimed with moving sensitivity. For both singers during the beautifully shaped duet a clear tension is sustained between oaths of fraternal loyalty and the varied repetition of “Oui, c’est elle, c’est la déesse” (“Yes, it is she, it is the goddess”). As if a premonition of the subsequent scene, a woman is visible during their singing, moving through the simulated water at stage rear.

Andrea-Silvestrelli_Marina-Rebeka_THE-PEARL-FISHERS_LYR171115b_0464_c.Todd-Rosenberg.pngAndrea Silvestrelli and Marina Rebeka [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]

Once the duet concludes, Zurga notes the approach of a narrow vessel carrying a veiled, unknown woman. As newly elected leader Zurga’s excited announcement, underlined by Kwiecień’s legato assurances on “nous protège” (“protects us”), stirs up the choral response of the pearl fishers. Leïla is carried onto the stage, while positioned on a sedan chair; she answers affirmatively the requisite questions concerning chastity and purpose. Ms. Rebeka’s simple, pure enunciations of the repeated, “Je le jure!” (“I promise”) are subsequently altered to incorporate emotional decoration when she sees Nadir. After such mutual recognition the two following musical numbers of Act One are both reflections on love and celebrations of intimate communication. In his romance, “Je crois entendre encore” (“I think I can still hear”), Nadir remains alone in front of the exotic trees which gradually darken in color. In this production such visual effect corresponds to the lyrics, “caché sous les palmiers” (“hidden beneath the palm trees”), as a description of the lush nocturnal scene in which he once heard Leïla’s song. Polenzani’s voice caresses the syllables of his lyrical panegyric to the priestess, the “espace” into which her song disappears being here declaimed with an illustrative diminuendo. Decorated with head tones on repetitions of “ivresse” (“elation”) and piano emphasis on “nuit enchanteresse” (“bewitching night”) Polenzani evokes the striking memory of Leïla, which has never left his heart.

At the start of the finale Nourabad gives instruction to Leïla before she commences her prayer to Brahma with the intention of protecting the pearl fishers. Leïla’s prayer, as echoed by the chorus, is marked at first with Rebeka’s decorative melismas and subtle piano touches. Once Nadir awakens and declares, “Dieu, c’est elle!” (“God, it is she!”) Rebeka responds with excited, varying emphases after her lines of recognition, “Il est là …je chante pour toi” (“He is here …. I sing for you”). With a flood of trilled and further embellished top notes her assurances to Nadir conclude the act with anticipation.

In the opening scene of Act Two attendants strewing flower-petals among the cushions set up the sleeping chamber of Leïla. Nourabad’s instructions encourage the priestess for her night of watchful prayer. Before he leaves, Leïla relates the story of a fugitive who sought refuge in her childhood home. Despite threats of physical harm, she maintained silence and enabled the stranger’s escape. Rebeka relates this memory with dramatic, full top notes on “il est sauvé” (“he was saved”) and “prends cette chaîne” (“take this necklace”) in describing the fate of the stranger and the demonstrated gratitude of his gift. After Nourabad’s final warning and departure, Leïla confesses in her cavatina “Comme autrefois” (“As it once was”) that she senses the nearness of Nadir. Rebeka embellishes increasingly the line starting with “mon cœur devine sa présence” (“my heart feels his presence”), just as she settles into the cushions among the flower petals; her final repeat of “comme autrefois” adds a flourish to conclude the aria with gentle trills and a final diminuendo. The following solo for oboe, played here ravishingly as Leïla reclines, seems to function as her emotions leading Nadir into the chamber. In their dramatic duet Leïla seeks to resist while assuming a posture of prayer. Rebeka’s voice blooms again as she confesses her attraction and memories of their past together [“Ainsi, que toi, je me souviens” (“I remember, as well as you”)]. Scarcely have they promised to meet again at nightfall, when a storm prompts Nadir to flee. Nourabad’s return exposes their secret and forbidden meeting, which is chillingly cursed by Silvestrelli as a blasphemous desecration. Once both Nadir and Leïla are detained and held captive before the threatening populace, Zurga appears to pronounce judgement. In his authoritative declamation, “Arrêtez! C’est à moi d’ordonner de leur sort! (“Stop! It is up to me to decide their fate!”), Kwiecień introduces decorative pitches to suggest hope for the transgressors. When he learns that the priestess is Leïla, this tone changes to fury as both are cursed and led away in bamboo cages.

The friendship, so prominent in Act One yet shattered in Act Two, becomes the focus of Zurga’s introspective aria at the start of the final act. In his accelerating repetition of “O Nadir,” Kwiecień’s voices passes from dramatic to tenderly lyrical color, as he expresses regret for having submitted to a “folle rage” (“blind rage”) in condemning his friend. In the conclusion of the aria Zurga includes Leïla in his supplication of forgiveness, with near-tenor top pitches decorating the line “Pardonnez aux transports d’un cœur irrité (“forgive the passion of an angry heart!”). In the following scene and duet between Zurga and Leïla, Rebeka’s insistent tone, expressed here with remarkable legato and extended pitches, causes Zurga to descend again to passionate anger. At the climax of their duet, the soprano line “Va, cruel” (“Take it, cruel man”) is here embellished with runs emphasizing her confident stance, so that Kwiecień’s Zurga cannot contain his “fureur.” Since he refuses to consider pity, Leïla faces her death with stoic beauty. Rebeka finishes the line, “Pour moi s’ouvre le ciel!” (“The heavens open up before me”), indicating her readiness with a piano top note. As Leïla is led away, she entrusts to a villager the necklace given her by the stranger whom she had saved long ago. When Zurga, as that stranger, realizes that he owes his life to Leïla, he experiences an apotheosis.

In the concluding scene beginning with a series of ballets, the dancers wear imaginatively designed heads of animals emphasizing the natural desire for vengeance. At Leïla’s entrance Rebeka shows even greater vocal determination; she then joins Nadir in his cage to face death. Zurga’s ultimate self-sacrifice becomes apparent when the villagers mistakenly perceive the light of dawn. The fire set to their dwellings by Zurga causes the villagers, instead, to scatter in fear and allow the escape of Nadir and Leïla. The final repetition of the friendship duet— now performed appropriately as a trio combining off- and onstage singing—echoes as Zurga is shot and left to die as punishment. At the close of the final scene in this production the tension of raw emotion and serene forgiveness was released by a cast that can scarcely be bettered in today’s world of opera.

Salvatore Calomino

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