Texas Classical Review » Blog Archive » A Fine Cast Shines in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” at the Dallas Opera

René Barbera as Nadir with Joyce El-Khoury as Leila in Bizet the Pearl Fishers at the Dallas Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

by Georges Bizet the Pearl Fishers, created in 1863, belongs to a new genre of opera which owes its genesis to the opening of the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. French tastes in lyrical opera, characterized by expansiveness and clarity of melodic lines, lively musical drama and the role of the opera chorus highlighted.

Despite a respectable run of 18 performances after the premiere, Parisian critics condemned the work, accusing Bizet of “Wagnerism”, calling the orchestration noisy and overloaded and decrying the robust bass role of the high priest Nourabad, with his demanding imposing musical scales in grand chant. Nonetheless, thanks to the enduring appeal of specific moments in the score – such as the famous tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” – the work has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and remains a mainstay in the canon of operatic repertoire.

Dallas Opera’s opening performance of a short series of the Pearl Fishers, pointed out how the grandiose singing and lyrical composition can create the kind of cognitive dissonance that inspired the work’s condemnation by many early critics. However, the overall effect of the performance was defined by brilliant solo singing, which was satisfying enough at the Winspear Opera House on Saturday night.

the Pearl Fishers tells the story of a pearl fishing village on the ancient island of Ceylon. Nadir and Zurga, two old friends, gave up on love in the name of their kinship, as they once fell in love with the same woman, Leila. When Leila is later ordained a virgin priestess, Nadir’s love for her exceeds his commitment to friendship, and she returns his affections despite the impending threat of death following the virgin priestess’s betrayal of her vows. When the two lovers are discovered by the village, the high priest Nourabad leads the crusade demanding their execution, but they are saved by Zurga, which ends in his own tragic demise.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and René Barbera as Nadir in The Pearl Fishers. Photo: Scott Suchman

The San Diego Opera production, co-directed by Shawna Lucey and James Smith, presents the drama in an ambiguous exotic setting. Although the use of Orientalism was prevalent in Bizet’s day, this production, with elegantly abstract sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes, does well to avoid exotic visuals and instead focus on the more opera generals – leadership, corruption and ethical practices in functions of faith and leadership.

Debuting at TDO in the role of Leila, soprano Joyce El-Khoury leans heavily on the lyrical demands of the score with a supple suppleness. Her vocal prowess shone brightest in Act II’s Leila cavatina. Here she employs a smooth, laser-like cadence that sounds clear and even from pianissimo to double forte. Its warm color, although lovely, belied the youth and innocence of the vestal.

Yet El-Khoury was also largely able to handle virtuosity, although his fickle coloratura could have used more precision throughout the first act. Act II’s duet with Nadir – their proclamation of love – seemed unbalanced, though Bizet’s compositional language flouts traditional expectations of the love duet by preventing the lovers from coming together in harmony.

Opposite her in the role of Nadir, René Barbera was utterly captivating in his Act I tune. with a light and agile touch. Conversely, he stood up firmly, vocally, to Alfredo Daza’s soaring baritone in the famous first-act duet, replete with a hymn march-like melody, which the two delivered with a lovely tone and a tight, cohesive mix.

Daza, as Zurga, had a rugged, mature tone that did well to convey the depth of the character’s life experiences. He was particularly convincing in the final scenes of Act III, shifting volatilely from fiery rage to tender stoicism. Muscular and authoritative, his quality of tone was consistent, even on the robust highs of his soliloquy.

Bass Morris Robinson is up to the challenge of the “Wagnerian” requirements of Bizet’s score. Known for his commanding, wide voice, Robinson provided the role of Nourabad with a weight that silenced others when the character spoke.

Under the direction of Nicole Paiement, the orchestra provided a supple sophistication in color and tone, with vibrant flute, harp and oboe passages lovingly highlighted throughout.

The only flaw in this performance was the lackluster choral singing. The preparation of the choir by Alexander Rom could have benefited from better balances, even if the fast tempos of Paiment were too often detached from the singing of the whole.

Eboni Adams’ choreography felt unnecessary and often distracting at times, however, she filled the stage with energy and tension during the most tumultuous crowd scenes.

the Pearl Fishers until April 10. dallasopera.org.

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