Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
You could tell, if you paid close attention, that it was not La Scala up there on the stage Wednesday night at Lisner - not even the New York City Opera. But the Washington Civic Opera has continued to grow through the years I have been observing its work, and Wednesday night's presentation of Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" left the capacity audience rightly very pleased.
The singing was good if not quite flawless, the staging low-budget but dramatically effective, the orchestra (drawn from the National Symphony) excellent and conducted with a good sense of pace and dynamics by Richard Weilmann. Perhaps most important of all, this production gave Washingtomans a chance to see an opera that is seldom performed (at least in this country) and well worth knowing.
Listen to the music without being told who wrote it, and you might have trouble guessing that "The Pearl Fishers" was composed by the man who wrote "Carmen." Its musical affinities are closer to the bel canto style (with less emphasis on vocal acrobatics) than to the melodrama of blood and tobacco with which Bizet's name is usually identified.
The plot is too complicated to summarize in a brief review and too silly to dwell on at length; basically, the question is whether the baritone will or will not have the soprano and tenor executed for violating a tribal tabu against tete-a-tetes while she is on duty as a priestess.
Nobility of heart and true love win out in the end and the baritone earns a fine death scene. There is also a storm scene and the chorus (a fine chorus in this production, not afraid, to be individuals visually while making their voices blend) gets a good variety of music ranging from religious awe to bloodthirsty anger.
Of the three principal singers, Alfred Anderson was most impressive as the noble baritone who dies well, Tenor John Sandor and soprano Janet Pranschke had a few moments vocally below their top form, but these were slight and brief.
A small, struggling opera company that tries a "Boheme" or a "Traviata" is bringing coats to Newcastle and looking for trouble. But the repertoire has literally hundreds of worthy works like "Pearl Fishers" that are seldom or never produced by the Metropolitan, and bringing these works to life is a worthy function which the Washington Civic Opera is fulfilling better each year.
Another one is to make live, staged operas available to audiences that lack the means to see them in the major houses, and a third - extremely important - is to give promising young singers the experience and exposure they need to reach their full potential.