Lyric Opera of Chicago 2017-18 Review – The Pearl Fishers: Polenzani, Kwiecien, & Rebeka Shine in Bizet’s Messy Love Triangle

(Credit: Todd Rosenberg)

There have been a good number of performances of “The Pearl Fishers,” or “Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” around the country in recent years. Peggy Woolcock’s English National Opera production was seen at the Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera while the late Lee Blakely’s version was in Santa Fe’s 2012 season.

The production viewed in probably the most locales is one directed by Andrew Sinclair with costumes and sets by Zandra Rhodes and it made its latest stop at Lyric Opera of Chicago. It originated in San Diego and has recently been in San Francisco and Seattle.

It marked a notable debut for Rhodes at Lyric because she is a frequent traveler to India who made a pit stop in Sri Lanka (the former Ceylon) – the setting for “The Pearl Fishers” – right before she went about designing for the San Diego opening in 2004. The result was robust and colorful costumes including sari-clad women that symbolized the spirit of the subcontinent quite well.

Bizet’s Early Genius

For those unfamiliar with the work, Bizet had composed lesser-known opera before “Pearl Fishers” debuted in 1863 when he was 24. As the story goes, it was not well received and only gained in acclaim well after the death of the composer.

It’s hard to see why it had trouble finding footing in the sense that Bizet’s music is absolutely gorgeous and it’s possible that the composer’s youth was held against him. The libretto was hurriedly put together and has been rightfully widely panned for its lack of substance. In any case, “The Pearl Fishers” is an important forerunner to Bizet’s composition of “Carmen” as one of the world’s greatest operas.

Set near a Hindu temple in Ceylon, Zurga is elected as the leader of the pearl fishermen before he is visited by an old friend, Nadir. They recall memories together and vow to renew their friendship all while Nadir is hiding a secret – that he has returned to the island to search for the princess Leila who both he and Zurga were once in love with.

All You Could Ask For

The simple tale of a love triangle set in a mystical location functions best as a showcase for singers. The expectation for a company like Lyric is to have the best of the best and exactly such a cast was assembled on this occasion with spectacular results.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nadir needs no introduction and certainly not at Lyric, where the local native is a major favorite and just completed a star turn as the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto.”

His rival as Zurga is another familiar face to the Chicago crowd in baritone Mariusz Kwiecien; this pairing also shined in these roles at the Met two seasons ago. Rounding out the cast are soprano Marina Rebeka, who has been performing Leila since 2014 in Zurich, and veteran bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Nourabad.

Masterful Dueling Duo

The famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” comes very early and Polenzani and Kwiecien delivered on every count. They began on opposite sides of the stage singing about the conflict between them concerning Leila before ending up together in a show of brotherhood.

Vocally the duo was sublime and making it better was how they portrayed the tension in the scene because Nadir is, in reality, disingenuous about being “united until death.” These gifted performers made their “Au fond du temple saint” seem more like a showy display of going through the motions than true companionship and that added a nice dramatic touch.

This became all the more apparent during Polenzani’s “Je crois entendre encore” after seeing Leila for the first time. This chance to show off was capitalized on fully by Polenzani in effortless fashion with gleaming high notes and a showman’s presence.

Another Dynamic Duo

Kwiecien was indisposed in the first performance of this run but I was fortunate to attend the third one and can report that he was 100 percent healthy. His “L’orage c’est calme” in the third act was a triumph of power and emotion that made evident his conflicted feelings towards both Nadir and Leila.

While I confess I do not recall Rebeka’s most recent exploits at Lyric, which include Violetta and Donna Anna, her Leila will be remembered very fondly as the equal of Polenzani and Kwiecien. Particularly enjoyable from the dramatic soprano was her exhortation to Zurga to have mercy on Nadir and the outcome of pure horror in her response after Zurga replies by stating his jealousy of Leila and Nadir’s love.

Another Superb Ensemble

I saw chorus master Michael Black in the lobby of the Civic Opera House in very good spirits before this performance and it was with good reason. His charges brought the villagers and fishermen to life in Bizet’s score. The excellent Sir Andrew Davis – also conducting Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at this time – made the adjustment along with his orchestra to French repertoire a snap.

It’s safe to say that no one who attends a performance in this run will leave questioning the merits of Bizet’s work.

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