July 2, 2012 at 5:12 PM

Santa Fe Opera Review: ‘The Pearl Fishers’

" 'Pearl Fishers' has shown its metal and mettle, and both are strong, true, tender and tuneful"

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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In 2011, The Santa Fe Opera took a chance on an opera most people in the field called certain death: Menotti's wittily philosophical 1960s comedy, “The Last Savage.” This season, they're taking chances on several productions, including Rossini's expansive “Maometto II” and Szymanowski's intense “King Roger” - unusual and seldom-heard pieces, both - and Bizet's early-in-his-career “The Pearl Fishers,” which opened on the second night of the 56th season, June 30. (“Tosca,” which was the main opener on June 29, will be reviewed here shortly; the final opera in the season, “Arabella,” opening July 28, is a return to the company's long devotion to Richard Strauss's works.)

With the Rossini and Szymanowski set to open July 14 and 21, respectively, the scales haven't tipped the balance either for or against them. But “Pearl Fishers” has shown its metal and mettle, and both are strong, true, tender and tuneful. Like the toothsome delight “Last Savage” turned out to be, the Bizet is definitely a curiosity to experience eagerly - and this despite a libretto weak-kneed even by operatic standards.

The story is simple enough. What makes the mind reel is how quirkily and quickly things are set, unfold, climax and eventually collapse into a tie-up-the loose-strings denouement. But oh, well, 'tis opera … Two friends fall (for the second time in their lives) for the same woman, a high priestess who must remain a virgin - and with good reason, for her chaste song keeps Ceylon's pearl-fishing clan safe from storm and sea. But when Nadir forgets his commitment to buddy Zurga and presses his suit to the set-apart Leila, she gives in so quickly she seems weak-minded, or at least weak in morals. The angry gods visit the community with a deadly cyclone, and everything more or less goes straight to Hades.

But there's a whole hand of aces in the hole to offset the story's intrinsic blahs. First off, there's the 24-year-old Bizet's music and how it's played and sung under the insightful baton of conductor Emmanuel Villaume. The vocal lines are apt and graceful (except when they're appropriately stentorian and raging), the orchestration is exceptionally effective and beautifully layered (special credit here to the maestro and the band), and the overall effect is full of spirit of place limned with effective light and shade. Yes, the harmonies and chord progressions and melodic arches are predictable - but so is how day gives way to start-studded night, and no one thinks less of either of them.

Then comes the four-member cast, which is as radiant as a South Seas sunset. Nicole Cabell sings Leila with a luscious, slightly dark soprano that can both float through the house and rise up like an ocean wave; she can thrill a lover with a pianissimo and then cut a villain's throat with a forte. Eric Cutler's Nadir shows a sweet but amply strong tenor tone, used with intelligence and charm. Christopher Magiera's Zurga offers a sturdy yet bright baritone with an impressive high register - very much so! - and Wayne Tigges' dark bass-baritone powerfully trumpets out high priest Nourabad's pronouncements. All four have what the French call the physique du role for this repertoire: they look great and move well. Cabell is lissome and lovely, Cutler very tall and striking, and Tigges also tall and lean as a panther. Magiera doesn't have the other men's height, but he commands a strong presence; and since he plays much of the first act buff and shirtless - as do a number of men in the cast - the word soon will spread that this is one to bring opera glasses to.

The third ace is definitely the chorus: one of the strongest set of apprentice artist singers I can recall hearing in recent years. Bizet gives the chorus a major role here, and under director Susanne Sheston, they put their demanding parts out with a will and a huge range of dynamics. Like the cast, they move well also - I could see nary a false move from any in the bunch. And for the fourth ace, there's the fine production itself, which is all of a conceptual piece - one that that suggests the Rousseau-ian pearl fishers are living half on the beach, half in the ruins of the long-gone Colonial conquerors. For the record, the astute director is Lee Blakeley, Rick Fisher the evocatively excellent lighting designer, and Jean-Marc Puissant and Brigitte Reiffenstuel the wholly professional set and costume designers, respectively.

It's not easy to predict how Santa Fe audiences will react to unfamiliar operas from year to year, and how that reaction will translate into ticket sales. But I'm sure of one thing: “Pearl Fishers” is a rarity not to be missed. Call the Box Office at 986-5900 for tickets, or visit www.santafeopera.org. You'll be glad you did.

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