Bizet's 'Pearl,' Dusted Off

Norah Amsellem and Trevor Scheunemann in Washington National Opera's
Norah Amsellem and Trevor Scheunemann in Washington National Opera's "Pearl Fishers." (By Karin Cooper -- Washington National Opera)
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By Charles T. Downey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 22, 2008

Washington National Opera's fall season continued Saturday night with Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," presented by the company for the first time since 1993. The opera may not enjoy the same popularity as the composer's "Carmen," which WNO will also mount in November, but it is a musically attractive piece.

Zurga and Nadir, two fishermen on the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), renew their friendship after a quarrel over a beautiful woman, Leïla. In a coincidence of operatic proportions, Leïla turns up in the village and risks her life, as a virgin priestess, to renew her love with Nadir. Zurga, who has just been elected chief, condemns the couple to death after the high priest, Nourabad, discovers them in an illicit embrace. But, moved by the revelation that Leïla is the woman who once saved his life, Zurga risks his own life to allow the lovers to escape.

The exotic setting presents a field day for designers, and the company has revived a production that has made the rounds of American opera houses in recent years. Zandra Rhodes, an eclectic fashion designer with fluorescent pink hair, based her sets and costumes on fabric patterns and historical artwork in Sri Lanka. The result is a neon-bright confabulation that recalls the fascination of artists like Delacroix and Matisse with exotic textiles. Authenticity is hardly the issue: The librettists hit upon Ceylon only after having abandoned the initial setting of Mexico.

The cast is on the up-and-coming side for a production at major-company ticket prices. American tenor Charles Castronovo made an impressive WNO debut, with a sweet, ringing tone and softly floating high notes in the Act 1 romance "Je crois entendre encore." Trevor Scheunemann's Zurga sounded unexpectedly underpowered by comparison with his more satisfying performances in recent years as a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist. Castronovo and Scheunemann were both covered by the orchestra in the full passages of their famous duet, "Au fond du temple saint," which cried out for a much more expansive reading.

French soprano Norah Amsellem has a grainy edge in her voice that is not ideal for this often ethereal role, but she sang with heft and accuracy. Amsellem has learned to control her tendency toward sharpness at the top of her range, although it was still a problem when she forced high notes. Denis Sedov was a woolly Nourabad, whose emoting grimaces outweighed his vocal menace. The chorus was in top form vocally for its compelling music, but director Andrew Sinclair allowed the choristers to mill about aimlessly during the storm scene.

This is Sinclair's umpteenth revival of this production, which now uses a version of the music that is an editorial Frankenstein monster, combining parts of Bizet's original 1863 score and the 1893 revision. Alongside the truncated, reworked 1893 version of "Au fond du temple saint," we have the complete second act of the 1863 score and, in Act 3, neither the 1863 duet "O lumière sainte" nor the trio by Benjamin Godard that replaced it in 1893. The scantily clad dancers, in the athletic choreography of John Malashock, helped keep the story moving, aided by tempos from conductor Giuseppe Grazioli that ranged from fleet to breathless.

The Pearl Fishers (sung in French with English surtitles) continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House tonight, Thursday, Sunday and Oct. 1, 4 and 7. Call 202-295-2400 or see http://www.dc-opera.org.

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