Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pearl Fishers

I must admit to some trepidation before going to see The Pearl Fishers as I had been underwhelmed by it during my preview listening over the past couple of weeks. Bizet's music has a lush but, to me, a rather inconsequential feel to it aside from the obvious hit arias and duets: "Au fond du temple saint" (Nadir and Zurga, Act 1), "Je crois entendre encore" (Nadir, Act 1)"Comme autrefois" (Leila), and "L'orage, s'est calmé" (Zurga, Act 3). It seemed to me that there was so much starting and stopping with the scene endings actually sounding like finales. For me this opera, like Elektra before, needed to be seen in order to be understood. Good thing I got to see it twice this weekend.

Last night (Sat) I walked out of the performance thinking that I really didn't need to see this opera again and dreading the prospect of a Sunday afternoon, a sunny one as it turned out, spent inside watching something that I just didn't care for. I am glad to say that my opinion has been reformed by the energy of Seattle Opera's Sunday cast. 

The Saturday cast were the older and more accomplished singers but this was both a strength and weakness. Where the voices were strong in some cases the acting left something to be desired and this really detracted from the power of the piece. Mary Dunleavy's Leïla was sung crisply and, yes, she can do all the kinds of slinky moves that the direction required (in this case lots of posting like various status of Hindu Goddesses) but there was really something missing for me. Perhaps it was simply that the precision of her voice couldn't capture the pathos of the character—I had difficulty believing that she was so in love so as to risk death and spent quite a bit of time wondering if she had gotten her jewelry at Govindjis (probably not the reaction she was going for). William Burden's Nadir was the clear stand out in this cast because of his expressiveness and power. Christopher Feigum's Zurga was a disappointment, primarily because his stage presence did not evoke the kind of sympathetic response his character probably demands. Torn between loyalty to his best friend, his responsibilities as "chief" or "headman", and his own jealous love for Leïla, Zurga's is the most complex and interesting role in the opera and the one upon which much depends. 

The dancing was wonderful—the ten dancers were a joy to watch as they leapt and bounced around an already crowded stage to thrilling effect. 

The Sunday principles, by comparison, breathed some fresh air and energy into the production and, this time, it was easy to relate to the pain of each character.  Larissa Yudina brought a powerful but subtle voice to Leïla. Her transitions between the loud and soft sections in her music conveyed the emotional turmoil of a young woman torn between duty and love. Hers is not a clinical voice, but one that is vibrant, warm, and alive. She can move too, but not with Dunleavy's agility (this is a nice way of saying that Yudina has some size on Dunleavy). "Barihunk" David Adam Moore's Zurga made the opera for me.  His voice, while probably lacking Feigum's polish, was clear, deep, and powerful enough to climb out over the audience. I did not tire of it. A nuanced actor with an excellent stage presence, Moore made me care about Zurga's torment in ways that Feigum did not.  Little things—turning on a lamp, tossing with nightmares, facial expressions as he interacted with the other singers and the audience—made it clear that he was inhabiting the role he was singing rather than simply singing the role and acting melodramatically. If there was a minor disappointment in this cast it would be Brian Stucki's Nadir. Disappointing not because his voice is not pleasant to hear but because it was hard to hear. During one of the intermissions I overheard some people saying that his voice was a bit small and I think they were spot on. But some of this was not his fault as there were some issues with the staging to contend with (more on this in a bit). 

There were two fight scenes as well and here, again, the Sunday cast evoked the action more effectively. Stucki and Moore looked like they were fighting, grappling, throwing, and wrestling in a way that Burden and Feigum did not seem to match. At dinner afterwards DW observed that perhaps this had to do with the issue of age. B and F looked as if they were fighting without getting hurt. S and M were fighting without getting hurt but looked like they were trying to kill each other. Aside from whatever issues of age and physical ability that might be at play I am wondering if there really is a difference in how singers are being trained about acting these days. 

The staging and sets were pretty interesting and, though static, became an organic part of the action (the head of a statue becomes a platform and a giant hand the execution platform). Especially magical was the underwater opening with a diver swimming down to the sea floor to recover a pearl (SO has swimming/flying down to a science). There were a couple of things that did bother me and which detracted from the performance. The outcropping of rock during the first act upon which much action takes place seemed so far back that it sucked the life out of the singer's voices. This was especially a problem during Nadir's initial entrance and during the scene in which Zurga explains why the mysterious woman is coming to the village. The second problem had to do with the use of the various scrims that were used to separate out action. Sitting on the main floor we could hear their mechanisms as they were deployed or retracted, loudly enough to be distracting. But this is a minor complaint. 

All-in-all, I am glad that I saw this AND had a second experience that made me want to see the opera again should I get the chance. It is not Bizet's best, Carmen's raw power and passion wins that hands down, but The Pearl Fishers has a refreshing subtlety that I enjoy partaking in. 

I talked with a couple of people who were either new to opera (one woman had just moved here from Boston) or, like us, had not seen this opera before. These people were quite impressed at the emotional power of the opera and of the singing in general. And what did my students think about this? Early returns indicate that they enjoyed it very much. One student has already said that she liked this one much better than Elektra. Nice to see this person forming her taste. 

The Pearl Fishers closes on the 24th. Go see it if you can! Take someone you love. 

Now it is time to get ready for the interioriality of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung in this coming February. Very different stuff indeed . . . 

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I'm so glad to read your review, Robin. Scott & I were delighted with the fight scene in this afternoon's performance. Yes, you put it well: it was like they really wanted to kill each other. Chandler, John joined in with us at intermission to agree that we were thrilled by the directness of the aggression! And we loved all the movement--the dancing and waving. The duet in Act 1 was beautiful, but I think I enjoyed Act 2 the most I've ever enjoyed any opera act (the visual imagery of the lovemaking in the foreground wasn't perfect--but the overall stage energy was exhilarating indeed). But that is not to say the ending didn't still move me deeply. (my 2 cents!)