Minnesota Opera opens season with lush staging of Bizet B-side
By LARRY FUCHSBERG, Special to the Star Tribune
Lesser-known opera "The Pearl Fishers" gets an injection of color in production designed by Zandra Rhodes.
Last update: September 28, 2009 - 11:43 AM
There's no use pretending that "The Pearl Fishers," written in 1863 by the 24-year-old Georges Bizet, is an operatic masterpiece. Saddled with a libretto disparaged by the librettists themselves, hobbled by a creaky final act, the piece sank after an initial run of 18 performances; it would be revived only posthumously, after Bizet's "Carmen" (premiered just before his death at 36) had conquered the world's lyric stages.
Yet middling scores can spur production teams to extraordinary efforts -- as has happened with the scintillating staging of "Pearl Fishers" (seen previously in eight North American cities) that launched the Minnesota Opera's new season Saturday. Leading the charge is pink-haired British fashion maverick Zandra Rhodes, 69, whose late infatuation with opera has so far yielded designs for "Aida" and "The Magic Flute," as well as Bizet. Working hand-in-glove with Kendall Smith's lighting and Andrew Sinclair's stage direction, Rhodes' sets and costumes, including a prodigious variety of headgear, render ancient Ceylon, the opera's setting, as a polychrome fantasy land -- a playful riot of reds, oranges, aquas and yes, pinks. Breathing new life into the work's stale exoticism, this glowing tropical palette seems to quicken the spectator's senses, intensifying the music no less than the stage action.
As Leïla, the virginal chanteuse-for-hire whose entanglements with tenor and baritone propel the plot, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian walked away with the evening's vocal honors. As agile as she is lyrical, Bayrakdarian can be expressive even when veiled and silent, and manages to seem vulnerable despite the utter security of her singing.
Jesus Garcia's Nadir, if a bit of a cipher, was winningly sung; his rapt "Je crois entendre encore" was exquisite. Philip Cutlip sounded phlegmatic at moments, and his acting was not always the subtlest. But he went far towards making sense of the mercurial Zurga, who toggles between jealous rage and magnanimity; in "O Nadir, tendre ami," perhaps the opera's most emotionally complex number, Cutlip registered his character's shifting, conflicting feelings with keen sensitivity.
Resident artist Jonathan Kimple made an imposing Nourabad, a high priest given atypical visibility in this production. Even more visible was the troupe of barely-clad dancers, most from Minneapolis' Zenon Dance Company, who made John Malashock's acrobatic, repetitive choreography look better than it is.
Under conductor Leonardo Vordoni, both orchestra and chorus resounded grandly, threatening at climactic moments to overwhelm the ear. Not a man to hurry, Vordoni dependably found the gentle pulse of Bizet's music and, in an evening largely about color, mixed the composer's sonic pigments with a sure hand.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.