Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Joe Illick
Director and Choreographer – John de los Santos
Production Designer – Roberto Oswald
Costume Designer – Scott Marr
Lighting Designer – Chad R. Jung
Wig and Make-up Designer – Steven Bryant
Stage Manager – Gina Hays
Assistant Director/Choreographer – Kyle Lang
Repetiteur – Jody Schum
English Supertitle Translation – Keith A. Wolfe
Spanish Supertitle Translation – Gabriela Lomónaco
Chorus Master – Stephen Dubberly
Leïla – Hailey Clark
Nadir – Sean Panikkar
Zurga – Lee Poulis
Nourabad – Justin Hopkins
Reviewed Performance 4/19/2014
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The 2014 Fort Worth Opera (FWO) Festival presented Georges Bizet’s lesser known opera The Pearl Fishers, on opening festival night April 19th with grand eccentric pizzazz. The choice of this work exemplifies General Director Darren Woods’ ability to prospect for gold. He finds lesser-known productions, performers, and talent and makes one ask, “How does he do this over and over?”
No, I don’t believe Woods has magical powers, but his nose for brilliance does remind me of the commercial character for Froot Loops cereal. Toucan Sam was the clever bird who could always sniff out the flavor of fruit wherever it grew. This depiction fits Woods to a tee, only his artistic nose sniffs out treasures in musicianship wherever it’s hidden– be it a soprano in a church or a neglected classic opera–Woods spots talent and hones in on it, much to the benefit of the opera-loving DFW community. The show before the show featured dazzling performers in the lobby wearing such costumes as a full peacock plume dress, a poofy, hot pink chiffon outfit, and buffed up, bronze-chested men wearing turbans.
Many patrons enjoyed interacting with the exotic performers and posing for photos with them. Large elephants, supported by costumed men, bobbed gracefully on the second-level box tier. Everywhere one turned something surprising and unusual sparkled back. This glamorous preshow segued nicely to the opera’s setting in ancient Ceylon, a pear-shaped island off the coast of the tip of India now called Sri Lanka.
Of course, Carmen is Bizet’s recognized masterpiece out of the dozen or so he composed, but The Pearl Fishers is certainly a pearl in the French composer’s crown. This, his sixth opera, premiered in 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris when Bizet was twenty-five. Thirty years later it premiered in Philadelphia, but the Metropolitan Opera waited until 1916 to perform the complete staging.
The Fort Worth Opera last performed the work in 1983 and now brings it back to the luxurious Bass Performance Hall as one of their classics this year. Mozart’s Così fan tutte is their featured warhorse. Also included in the festival lineup are two premieres: the professional world premiere of Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask’s With Blood, With Ink, and the regional premiere and national co-production of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night.
In The Pearl Fishers, the curtain rose during the orchestra’s prelude. Surrounded by the pitch-black of nothingness, a spotlit veiled priestess adorned herself with jewels. A half-lit man momentarily loomed near her. Lighting designer Chad Jung’s use of the spotlight set the mysterious tone well. Throughout the opera, Jung’s lighting bathed the chorus, clad in earth-toned costumes, and the lead singers’ crimson-colored attire in golden hues. The stunning South Asian costumes designed by Scott Marr were provided by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Opera Carolina.
The plot is simple—two fishermen are in love with the same woman who happens to be a priestess sworn to chastity. The tale’s portrayal is far from simple in the young Bizet’s hands. He followed the trends of the times and gratified the public’s insatiable hunger for operas set in mysterious lands by setting the love triangle in ancient Ceylon. This gave Bizet ample opportunity for musical themes writhing with sensuous melodies and vibrant harmonies and orchestration.
Conductor Joe Illick handled the colorful elements of the orchestration well and skillfully followed the singers’ cadenzas. The orchestra mastered and reveled in the captivating rhythms. I particularly enjoyed the flutists who trilled the eerie melodies with lilt and sensitivity.
The traditional scenery and properties, courtesy of Opera Carolina, showcased a massive Buddha statue that adorned the shrine either upright or laying on its side. In the program notes, Dr. Nicolas Reveles of the San Diego Opera suggested that we not worry about the fact that the fishermen were Hindu or that the shrine in Kandy is about 200 miles from the pearl beds; historical accuracy is not of the highest importance in opera.
The raked stage created particular challenges for movement and breath support according to chorus singer, Rainelle Krause, (a rising soprano talent to watch). Nonetheless, the effect was stunning. The chorus sang and moved in side-scenes, providing a backbone to the main action. They were a feast for the eyes with their synchronized choreography created by Director and Choreographer John de los Santos who maximized the chorus and Texas Ballet Theater talent available in the big scenes.
The supremely toned dancers from the Texas Ballet Theater, often sparsely clad in the slip of a sarong, navigated the raked stage as if it were a wooden ballet studio floor. They flung their long black tresses about and moved acrobatically, spicing up the action like Ceylon cinnamon adds flavor to a bland dish.
However, “bland” is not an adjective one could use to describe this production—far from it! From the moment the pearl fishers began to perform their memorizing rituals to ward off evil spirits (“Sur la grève en feu”) to when tenor Sean Panikkar as Nadir strode onto the stage and sang not only with exquisite tone but in total command of the action, the excitement accelerated nonstop. Nadir the fisherman has a crush he can’t shake. He tracked a priestess to the island of Ceylon even though he had sworn off pursuing her to his loyal friend Zurga.
Last year, Panikkar performed to great acclaim another star-crossed lover—Rodolfo in FWO’s La Bohème. He is a member of the newly created tenor trio, Forte, which took home fourth place in America’s Got Talent and also performed a one-night concert as part of the festival.
In his opening scene, the fiery Nadir sings of fighting jaguars and panthers, and we believe that the fearless fisherman, with a muscular chest barely covered by a small vest, could conquer wild animals. Truly, there was not a flabby fellow in the lead cast, and testosterone abounded. The famous “Au fond du temple saint” that Nadir sang with Zurga, baritone Lee Poulis, oozed with virility and beautifully aligned harmonies. This combination makes it the duet the world knows as The Pearl Fishers’ duet. Panikkar’s and Poulis’ voices complemented each other. They played off each other well throughout the opera, allowing their conflicting devotion of friendship and love for the same woman seethe beneath the surface. Director John de los Santos’ staging placed the comrades far apart throughout the long duet, building suspense for the moment when the two finally touched their fists and forearms in a gesture of solidarity. They held this striking pose during the lengthy applause and cheering.
In lovely feminine contrast was the bejeweled priestess Leïla, sung by soprano Hailey Clark. Clark’s voice, while not as booming as her male counterparts, is focused and delightfully flexible. She closed Act I with a magnificent cadenza at the end of “O Dieu Brahma.” Earlier in the act, the virgin priestess sang her promise to be chaste while dancers delicately dropped white flowers petals in a ring around her. White light and petals encircled her. After Leïla departs, Nadir again kneels in that circle and allows her essence to inhabit his soul as he sings “Je crois entendre encore.” The effect—breathtaking!
Even the composed Dr. Rob Stephenson, a member of the Board of Trustees, commented during the post-show gathering in the mezzanine, “They got to me this time. I cried.” Stephenson also commended Darren Woods for scouting out talent and bringing them to Fort Worth “before they make it big and become too expensive for us.”
Justin Hopkins performed his debut role with the FWO as the pivotal high priest Nourabad. Hopkins’ rich bass voice proved an essential element to many duets and trios even though Bizet does not give this character a standalone aria.
Stephen Dubberly directed the chorus whose on- and off-stage singing was marvelous. The male chorus handled the driving rhythms well in their off-stage piece. Hannah Guinn, the Director of the Studio and Education, gave an informative preshow lecture discussing the other arias beside the famous duet that are also gems in this opera. She mentioned that Bizet wrote his own recitatives, the passages in the music that are sung in a way that resembles speech—just another example of Bizet’s under-recognized talent.
The Fort Worth Opera chose well in presenting the underdog Bizet opera. I hope you will follow the Kurdish proverb, “He who wants pearls has to dive into the sea.” The journey is hardly treacherous to the elegant Bass Performance Hall where you may enjoy a glistening pearl.
Bass Performance Hall
4th and Calhoun Streets
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Last performances are Sunday April 27th at 2:00 pm and Friday, May 2nd at 7:30 pm
Tickets range from $25.00 to $200.00, depending on the date and seating tier.
Military receive a 50% discount. Student rush tickets are available 15 minutes prior to performance with ID. Group prices are also available.
Purchase tickets online at www.fwopera.org or call 817-731-0726 (Toll Free 1.877.396.7372).