Opera in the Heights Creates Real Treasure with “Pearl Fishers”

Houston, TX – Opera in the Heights’ recent production (and Houston premiere) of Georges Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a study in contradictions, from the story’s tension between friendship, love and faith, to the counterpoint between the epic sweep of the story’s exotic setting and the intimate confines of Lambert Hall.  Although the story by Eugene Cormon and Michael Carre is fairly thin (boys meet girl, boys resolve not to fight over girl, boys fight over girl), Bizet’s magnificent score more than makes up for any dramatic shortcomings.  Not only does Bizet allow his lead singers to shine with brilliant arias (not to mention the classic baritone-tenor duet, Au fond du temple saint), but he also makes masterful work of setting the mood through the chorus’ beautiful music.  It is Bizet’s music that takes a simple story and allows it’s epic theme of loyalty (Zurga’s loyalty to his friend Nadir, Nadir’s torn loyalties between Zurga and Leila, Leila’s conflict between her loyalty to her faith and her longing for Nadir) to soar.

The three young singers portraying the lead roles did fine work.  Yoonsang Lee was outstanding as tribe leader Zurga.  The baritone sang richly and lyrically, with a commanding presence befitting Zurga’s stature in his community.  Less exciting initially was tenor Fabian Robles as the young lover, Nadir.  Robles’ higher register seemed reedy and didn’t cut through the orchestra well during act one.  However, his aria in act two (Je crois entendre encore) involved more of a falsetto mix and was simply stunning in terms of his tone and artistry.  Finally, soprano Ani Maldjian sang the role of Leila with a voice that was remarkable for its combination of flexibility and rich color.  She, out of all of the leads, was also the most natural actor, portraying Leila’s varying moments of fear, vulnerability, and inner peace effortlessly.  In fact, Maldjian infused so much emotion into her singing alone that the veil she wore over her face through much of act one and act two could have been opaque rather than white and she still would have conveyed her feelings effectively.

Opera in the Heights presents its performances in historic Lambert Hall, built in 1927.  The hall has only 11 rows on the floor and four in the balcony, making each production a rather intimate affair.  Set designer Rachel Smith used long swaths of richly colored cloth to add scope to the small stage, with different configurations of the draping being used to indicate different locations.  The effect was lovely, although in such close quarters, it was occasionally distracting to see actors moving the cloth around in the background.  Lambert Hall is undoubtedly one of Opera in the Heights’ key assets, allowing the music fill to the space with more potency and immediacy than it does in a larger house; on the other hand, it certainly doesn’t allow for hiding technical issues or weaker actors in the background.  However, these minor distractions should not detract from what was overall a gem of a performance of a beautiful and too-often overlooked opera.

Photo on Home page: Fabian Robles as Nadir and Ani Maldjian as Leila, Photo by Sergio Garcia Rill

Other photos by: Gwen Turner Juarez