Opera Review: Nashville Opera, fishing for jewels in ‘The Pearl Fishers’

bizet6As the curtain went up on Act 2 of The Pearl Fishers on Tuesday night, one could hear a chorus, not of opera singers, but of opera buffs going “ooh” and “ahh.” Nashville Opera was running through its final dress rehearsal at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and a small, select audience was getting its first glimpse of this production’s sumptuous sets and costumes.

Bizet’s youthful opera is set in an ancient Ceylonese fishing village, and Nashville Opera has chosen scenery that seems as lush, primitive and exotic as anything found in one of Gauguin’s post-impressionistic Tahiti paintings. The lavish scenery (originally designed for Sarasota Opera) for the holy temple grounds in Act 2 look like primeval ruins from Easter Island, complete with the giant, toppled head of a deity.  The sacrificial altar before the statue of the god Brahma in Act 3 is as beautiful as it is ominous.

bizet2This production, which opens Thursday and repeats Saturday at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall, is chockfull of visual splendors – not the least of which is some delightfully sensual, ritualistic dancing from a corps of women from the Nashville Ballet.  But what most recommends this opera is the singing and acting.

The acting part will probably come as a surprise to many opera aficionados, since The Pearl Fishers is often criticized for having a flimsy plot and inane libretto. The story, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Two old fisherman friends, who were once rivals for the same woman, renew their friendship on condition they both vow to stay away from said woman. As fate would have it, the woman reappears as a virgin priestess who swears off love altogether. Before long, everyone’s vows begin to break, with the disastrous results that one expects in 19th-century opera.

bizet4Scenes in The Pearl Fishers can seem static, with the lead characters engaged in a lot of navel-gazing about their emotional conflicts. (In this production, the audience engages in a lot of navel-gazing of its own, courtesy of all the bare midriffs that are revealed in Pam Lisenby’s colorful costumes.) Dramatic director John Hoomes, to his credit, keeps the action moving, and he calls on his cast to deliver urgent performances. The leads heeded his demands on Tuesday and gave performances that were immediate and heartfelt.

The two male leads, baritone Craig Verm as Zurga and tenor Harold Meers as Nadir, both possess expressive voices that were beautifully matched in the famous Act 1 duet. Verm, who is making his Nashville Opera debut, sang with a dark-chocolate voice that was burly yet well-focused. Meers sang with an appealing tenor that was most impressive in its diaphanous, stratospheric falsetto range (there were moments on Tuesday when one might have guessed he was a countertenor). His supple instrument also blended beautifully in his love scene duet with Leila.

bizet3Soprano Heather Buck, who is also making her Nashville Opera debut as the aforementioned Leila, was the most impressive in an impressive lineup of singers.  All evening, she sang with a voice that was rich and plush in its middle register, and silvery in the top. She negotiated the role’s difficult, warbling coloratura with accuracy and agility. Bass Ben Wager, as Nourabad, looked more like a voodoo phantom than a Ceylonese high priest. Regardless, he sang the role with just the right amount of stentorian power. The Nashville Opera Chorus sang with a sound that, at its best, glistened.

bizet5Conductor William Boggs is leading the Nashville Opera Orchestra in this performance, and during Tuesday’s final dress rehearsal the ensemble played the score with a welcome degree of refinement. The details and solo work were especially appealing. For instance, the flute and harp playing nicely supported the big male duet, and the horn playing was beautifully restrained during Leila’s Act 2 aria. Above all, the ensemble’s playing was always flexible and wonderfully supportive of the singing, which, of course, is what this opera is all about.

Photos courtesy of Reed Hummell, Nashville Opera

IF YOU GO

Nashville Opera presents Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Performances are 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. Tickets are $21.50 to $97.50 and are available by clicking here or by calling (615) 832-5242.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.