Visual Spectacle and Vocal Excellence: Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Bizet – Les Pêcheurs de perles

Leïla – Marina Rebeka
Nadir – Matthew Polenzani
Zurga – Mariusz Kwiecień
Nourabad – Andrea Silvestrelli

Lyric Opera Chorus, Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Andrew Davis.
Stage director – Andrew Sinclair

Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.  Wednesday, November 29th, 2017.

Les Pêcheurs de perles has perhaps suffered somewhat from being in the shadow of Carmen and yet it contains some quite exquisite music.  Of course, there is ‘that’ duet, but also a number of choruses that stay in the mind well after the show has finished, as well as some attractive arias.  The plot isn’t the most complicated but what the work does succeed in doing is creating a framework for the three principals to work their magic.  That is precisely what we got this evening.

Photo: © Andrew Cioffi

Andrew Sinclair’s staging plays it relatively straight.  There is a simplicity to his storytelling that certainly is a strength – the idea of Zurga representing the new regime and Nourabad the old feeling threatened by the new is hinted at, but not quite fully brought out, at least until the final scene.  What Sinclair instead gives us is a good, old-fashioned show and it was warmly received by the audience.  The designs (Zandra Rhodes) were colourful (though perhaps garish would be a more appropriate description) and there was a lot of ‘local’ colour in the costumes (also Rhodes) with some outfits that would not look out of place in a Bollywood hit.  Yet, despite the visuals, the personenregie was somewhat conventional – a lot of standing and delivering, while the chorus was parked along the sides and a ballet corps, in a nod to the French opera ballet tradition, added a dancing contribution.  There were balance issues due to the placement of the chorus with individual voices sticking out, something that wasn’t apparent when they were placed off-stage.

Photo: © Andrew Cioffi

Yet despite this, tonight completely won me over thanks to some terrific performances from the principals.  As Andrew Davis led ‘au fond du temple saint’ at a self-indulgently slow tempo, something happened as Matthew Polenzani’s Nadir and Mariusz Kwiecień’s Zurga started singing together.  The warmth of the two voices intertwining with the soaring, gossamer strings and throbbing harp took the performance to a different level and it kept it there for the rest of the evening.  I must admit that it sounded to me that Kwiecień took a little while to find his best form, the tone sounding somewhat wide initially (there were reports that he was unwell at the premiere – sadly it’s that time of year when these things are most likely to happen) but once he did, he really did bring it.  That familiar combination of a metal core wrapped in velvet with that immaculate legato was there for us to hear.  In his Act 3 aria ‘ô Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge’, he filled the number with just the sense of remorse required, with seemingly endless lines and the climactic high F-sharp emerging as an impassioned, concentrated, laser-like beam of sound.  Naturally, his acting completely encapsulated all of the facets of the leader with his electrifying stage presence.  He struck sparks in his big Act 3 confrontation with Marina Rebeka’s Leïla.

Photo: ©Todd Rosenberg

Indeed, one of the reasons that the drama from the principals was so vivid was that the text from all three was so clear with very good diction on the whole.  I was struck by how Rebeka’s voice has bloomed in the last few years and she gave us a delicious Leïla tonight.  The voice had a silvery core with a pearly top and great agility.  Her use of dynamics was beguiling, shading the tone with a seemingly limitless palette of tone colours.  Her lovely act 1 scene ‘comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre’ was beautifully sung, full of wistful hope and longing.  If Rebeka does not, as yet, appear to have a genuine trill, her singing was always musical and it seemed that the voice would do absolutely everything asked of it.  Although, that did mean that her Act 3 ‘je te maudis’ to Zurga didn’t quite have that elemental struggle one hears when lighter voices take on the role – it sounded far too easy to her.  Still, this was a notable assumption of the role.

Photo: ©Todd Rosenberg

Matthew Polenzani gave us a wonderfully dreamy ‘je crois entendre encore’ shading the tone ravishingly.  The way he pulled the tone back on top, experimenting with the sound, was extremely impressive.  Yet it was always entirely musical, never mannered.  Nadir is a role that sits well for his high tenor and he caressed the language to colour the text in a remarkable way.  Andrea Silvestrelli was a somewhat woolly and verbally indistinct Nourabad, but he still has stage presence to share.  The fifty-two voices of the Lyric Opera Chorus displayed tight ensemble but blend was compromised by their positioning on stage.  When singing off-stage, they made a warm, homogenous sound and their commitment throughout was never in doubt.

Photo: ©Todd Rosenberg

Andrew Davis led a reading that was founded in a warm bass sound in the orchestra.  Given that they are alternating this run with Walküre, there was something of a Wagnerian sweep to his reading with big, extrovert gestures.  Ideally, I would have preferred some sharper attack in the strings but the playing of the solo clarinet, in particular, was full of character.  He was a sensitive accompanist to his singers, ready to pull back when necessary although tempi did feel on the leisurely side.

Photo: ©Todd Rosenberg

Tonight, we had a production that played the work straight and in many respects, this was to its advantage.  It never claimed to be a reassessment of the work, a questioning of its cultural authenticity and to that extent, it stayed true to itself.  What it did give us was a framework for three superb solo performances from three vital singing-actors who succeeded in making this a very special evening indeed.

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