An extremely colorful “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera

A scene from Lyric Opera’s production of “The Pearl Fishers.” – Andrew Cioffi

Classical Music Critic

What: “The Pearl Fishers”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Dec. 10

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” The story to Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” isn’t much more than that. Friends Zurga and Nadir once fell in love at first sight at the same time and with the same woman, but they both agree to forget the woman and instead pledge lifelong friendship to each other. Leïla, the woman in question, shows up on their turf already in love with Nadir and the two secretly meet. When they are caught, Zurga, being the leader of the pearl fishers, promises drastic punishment. The couple prepares to face death. The unexpected twist at the end is the only surprise in an otherwise by-the-numbers story. That it is also set in Ceylon’s past adds the exotic touch nearly loved to death by many opera composers. Bizet was only 24 when he wrote the opera, and the score is musically uneven, although it features some wonderful moments. (Bizet’s greatest work, “Carmen,” was composed more than a decade later.)
Yet “The Pearl Fishers” has many fans and Lyric’s current production is sure to create more because the singing will entrance you.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani is a local favorite, and no wonder: he’s a native of Evanston, his career was launched via Lyric’s Ryan Center, and he’s a simply marvelous singer. He makes for a dashing Nadir and turns the young man’s contemplative love song about finding Leïla again (“Je crois entendre encore”) into a fascinating glimpse into the soul. Polenzani employs restraint and subtle coloring that glorifies the music and beautifully evokes his smoldering love.
Zurga is a character rather easy to dislike for much of the opera, but baritone Mariusz Kwiecien does a wonderful job in defining varying emotions, so that Zurga is never one-dimensional. His singing in the first part of the opera is occasionally more blustery than required, but he blossoms in the third act, ably combining power and artistry to create a nuanced performance.
Soprano Marina Rebeka is a splendid Leïla, drawing bold distinctions between the young woman who presents herself to the world as remote and pious and the young woman who is passionately in love with Nadir. She has brilliant sound at the top and a pleasing fullness throughout her range.
Bass Andrea Silvestrelli has lost much of the sheen from his voice and often sounds hollow, but his acting remains polished and convincing. He struts about the stage as Nourabad the high priest and makes this man’s terrifying authority entirely believable.
“The Pearl Fishers” is famous for containing a great tenor-baritone duet (many believe, as I do, it’s the greatest tenor-baritone duet in all of opera). Polenzani and Kwiecien offer an elegant account of “Au fond du temple saint” and leave you wanting more.
The Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by chorus master Michael Black, is magnificent, with full-blooded singing as well as apt characterizations of the villagers.
Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra with assurance, lyrical clarity, and full-blown romanticism. The sound from the pit is always beautiful.
Stage director Andrew Sinclair keeps things moving and keeps them clear. But he has to compete for attention with the garish sets by Zandra Rhodes. She’s put Technicolor on an LSD trip. You are warned before entering the theater that there will be theatrical gun shots. But you should instead be warned that your eyes could pop out of your head from exposure to the highly saturated hot pinks and electric yellows. The opening scene, featuring flat palm trees, looks like a cross between a cartoon and a brochure for a tropical vacation.
There’s a lot of dancing in “The Pearl Fishers” and it’s unfortunate that choreographer John Malashock’s work is very uneven. At its best, however, the dancing is not only attractive but propels the story — such as it is — forward.