Pearl Fishers – Pittsburgh Opera – Review

Leah Partridge as Leila in Pittsburgh Opera's Pearl Fishers Photo by David Bachman

Pittsburgh, PA – Saturday’s production of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, presented by the Pittsburgh Opera, offered an exciting mix of dazzling and imaginative sets and costumes complimented by a very well-rounded and talented cast.

Consisting of only four lead characters and a large chorus, the familiar plot revolves around a love triangle formed by King Zurga of ancient Ceylon (better known today as Sri Lanka), his best friend the hunter Nadir and the high priestess Leïla, with whom both had been in love and from whom both had sworn to remain to preserve their friendship.  Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist alumni Craig Verm and Sean Panikkar held the stage confidently as Zurga and Nadir respectively.

Sean Panikkar and Craig Verm in Pittsburgh Opera's Pearl Fishers Photo by David BachmanMr. Verm’s strong, crisp baritone remained true throughout the evening, complimented well by Mr. Panikkar’s lyric tenor, showcased beautifully during their famous duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” which recalls the comrades’ pact to abandon their mutual love for Leïla.  While I felt Mr. Panikkar’s voice faltered a bit during his aria “Je crois entendre encore,” floundering slightly into more heady falsetto than I would have preferred, he acted very well and by the time Nadir and Leïla admit their love for one another, culminating in their second act rendezvous within the darkened ruins of an ancient Indian temple, I was fully involved and satisfied in the drama.  Interestingly enough, as I learned in a conversation with Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn, Mr. Panikkar is in fact a first generation descendant of authentic Sri Lankan pearl fishers, though perhaps that is reading a bit too literally into his relationship with his role.

As the High Priestess Leïla, Leah Partridge sang clearly and captivated with her beauty befitting the character.  She first arrives atop a colorful litter, concealed by a layered veil, her gaze so striking I almost felt as though she was looking for me in the crowd.  While there were some unsteady vocal moments during her more exposed arias, I wonder if Bizet’s budding maturity is partially to blame.  Written when the composer was just twenty-four years old, I couldn’t help but think that some of the production’s weaker moments lay within very tell-tale choices indicative of a young composer.  Leïla, for example, frequently erupts into vocal cadenzas, filled with trills and “money” notes, some of which a more prudent and experienced composer may have chosen to save for more critical moments or leave out all together.  I felt that Ms. Partridge exercised her instrument well, but may have fallen victim to Bizet’s unrestrained compositional choices.  During her pre-performance talk, assistant to the General Director Kristin Gatch remarked that this, Bizet’s eighth opera, marked a turning point in the public recognition of the composer as a serious talent.  Jokingly, Ms. Gatch described the librettists’s reaction to Bizet’s sophisticated score as “Yikes,” suggesting that had they known he was such a good composer they would have written a better story.

Sean Panikkar and Leah Partridge in Pittsburgh Opera's Pearl Fishers Photo by David BachmanAs the stoic High Priest Nourabad, Andrew Gangestad sang with a power and  conviction that pulled me into the discipline of Nourabad’s clerical universe.  While a relatively small role, Mr. Gangestad was quite compelling with his striking appearance and authoritative posture.  At a dramatic turn toward the end of the second act, Nourabad appears in the temple ruins uncovering the forbidden tryst between Nadir and Leïla with a clap of thunder and a flash of light that, I admit, made the hair on my arms stand up and pushed a tear from my eye.  As the terrified townspeople assembled on stage, pleading with their god Brahma for compassion and assistance, I felt as though I were among them, fearful of the wrath of nature.

This moment was a high point for the overall ensemble, which did not receive enough support from the orchestra due to several issues with intonation, particularly in the low brass.  The chorus got off to a weak start but improved throughout, and my thoughts kept drifting to the question of the composer’s orchestration and how that may have affected the chorus’ ability to project effectively.

With regard to the dramatic presentation, I did feel that there were several missed opportunities that shone clearly.  The stage direction, championed by veteran director Andrew Sinclair, was entirely too busy for my taste and in many instances the chorus and ensemble moved so busily that I felt more distracted by them than engaged.  In line with this observation, the choreography, provided by frequent Pittsburgh Opera collaborators Attack Theater, consumed far too much of the action on stage and was, perhaps, a bit stereotypical in its depiction of historic oceanic peoples.  That said, I found the more intimate moments involving lead characters and a few strategically placed ensemble members (serving more so as living set pieces) to be very tastefully composed.

The scenic presentation was conceived by the famous British fashion designer Ms. Zandra Rhodes (originally for the San Diego Opera), who was in attendance beneath a trimmed canopy of neon-pink hair and thick lines of punky black eye liner.  At 70 years old, Ms. Rhodes has led a fabulous career styling famous Brits such as Freddie Mercury, Kate Moss and Lady Diana.  Consistent with Ms. Rhodes’ pedigree, my initial reaction to her wonderfully colorful and kinetic sets was that they resembled fashion flats and illustrations, channeling bits of Matisse’s cutouts and the drawings of Picasso.

Andrew Gangestad and Leah Partridge in Pittsburgh Opera's Pearl Fishers Photo by David BachmanUnfortunately, there seemed to be too clear a divide between where Ms. Rhodes’ set pieces ended and her costumes began.  Only in Nourabad’s priestly vestments did I see an apparent link between the cartoony world of Ms. Rhodes’ fantasy Ceylon and the appearance of the characters who inhabit it.  While I greatly enjoyed Ms. Rhodes’ overall flare, I would have liked to see a greater link or cohesion between the people and the environment.

In all, I was impressed by The Pittsburgh Opera’s Pearl Fishers and am eager to follow up after this Thursday’s student matinee, featuring a second cast comprised entirely of current Resident Artists.  I will be writing about the value of this unique program, championed by General Director Christopher Hahn, and most likely reflecting upon the adventure ahead of attending an opera at 10 in the morning with 2,800 teenagers!

Photos by David Bachman