I am not the first writer or reviewer to call "The Pearl Fishers" Georges Bizet's "other opera," referring to his crowd-pleasing masterpiece, "Carmen." But it's hard not to.
Like Bizet's better-known "Carmen," "The Pearl Fishers" offers a big, powerful, lavish story and staging, with lots of crowd scenes, memorable melodies and dancers acting the part of fire as they twirl red streamers.
The production at the Detroit Opera House, which has remaining performances this weekend, is an excellent staging, with stand-out performances from baritone Nmon Ford, tenor Noah Stewart and soprano Leah Partridge.
The story is straightforward. It tells of lifelong friends Nadir (Stewart) and Zurga (Ford) who are captivated by and obsessed with the same woman -- Leila (Partridge). In probably the most memorable tune from the opera, the two men sing "Au fond du temple saint" early in the play, professing to maintain their brotherhood and not fall to their feelings, something that would certainly separate them.
Not unexpectedly, this arrangement doesn't last long. Leila has a distinct preference for the unfortunately named Nadir, and he reciprocates, obviously and undeniably feeling wonderful that she chooses him over Zurga without much wooing needed.
Zurga is the leader of the village, though, and gets pretty bent out of shape about losing his best friend and his love interest at the same time. As the final curtain falls, the whole village is burning to the ground.
The story is set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). The set design is beautifully done with all the vibrant bird-plume colors you would expect from an island in the Indian Ocean. The lighting and use of see-through screens to change mood and times of day and night is captivating as you listen to the violent love story play out.
Really good opera stories, in whatever time they are set, convey universal and timeless themes. "The Pearl Fishers" is no different. At bottom, it is about relationships, jealousy, lust, love, loyalty, power. Those are the ingredients of Shakespeare as well as "Mad Men."
If there's anything missing from the story, though not the performances, it's a few laughs. The story can be plodding at times, even while the singing is sublime. About the only titter for the audience comes when the boys are pledging their loyalty to one another and swear off Leila to one another. As if that ever works.
For those who are fans of the specific performers, be aware that on alternate nights Sarah Joy Miller appears as Leila, while Jesus Garcia plays Nadir, and Edward Parks stars as Zurga. Bass-baritone Andrew Gray plays the role of the high priest Nourabad. Suzanne Mallare Acton conducts. Superb staging is by Andrew Sinclair.
If you're a supporter of opera and are aware that the Detroit Opera House has a serious financial shortfall it is trying to close, you will be asked at the start of the performance to make a pledge of support with a check or credit card. At the April 18th performance, it was made known that an anonymous donor pledged to match donations made at the theater up to $100,000. That request will be repeated through the weekend.
With productions as good as "The Pearl Fisher," and "The Marriage of Figaro" earlier in the season, the Michigan Opera Theater and Detroit Opera House are local treasures that deserve support.
Showtimes for "The Pearl Fishers" are 7:30 p.m. April 20, and April 21, with a 2:30 p.m. performance on Sunday April 22, at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway. Ticket prices range from $29 to $121.
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