When you stop to think about it, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is pretty much a silent movie, yes? Except with sound, of course. Consider the setting: ancient Ceylon à la MGM’s back lot. Consider the characters: beautiful, emotive and paper-thin. Consider the plot: lovely, exotic balderdash.
Whom shall we cast in our silent-cinematic parlor game? I'll vote for Pola Negri as the virginal priestess, Leïla; John Gilbert as her would-be lover, Nadir; and either George Valentin or Jean Dujardin as his unhappy rival and best buddy, Zurga. To direct? DW Griffith, of course.
But why go to all that trouble, since a dream cast is already on stage in the Santa Fe Opera's new, first-ever production of Bizet's challenging, flawed and gorgeous confection? Ladies first, please. Nicole Cabell made her SFO debut as Musetta back in 2007, as vivacious and worldly a soubrette as they come. Now singing Leïla, she's called upon to choose between two roles: the selfless priestess of Brahma upon whose chastity—demanded by the boys, naturally—the safety of the pearl divers depends or the flesh-and-blood woman who loves and is loved by the unfortunate and unfortunately named Nadir.
Cabell sings like an angel—not one of the pallid, fluttery persuasion that gets mislabeled "the French style," but with warmth and full-throated ease, undaunted by the florid fillips the role insists upon. For an object lesson in graceful vocal purity, just pay attention to Cabell's dreamy second-act aria, "Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre."
Eric Cutler, her Nadir, makes a grand impression as well. Despite a grainy but solid lower register, Cutler's large voice simply soars in his uppermost passages with a mixture of sweetness and strength that makes this demanding role his own. Plus, he's a generous partner in the duets that help define the texture of this opera.
In the present production, Zurga emerges as central figure and near-tragic hero, vacillating madly between bitter vengeance and self-sacrificing forgiveness. Here, Christopher Magiera's supple, elegant baritone very nearly embodies the Gallic style. Although overpowered at times by an energetic orchestra, Magiera's is a noble reading of an often thankless role.
Still, the prize for operatic thanklessness goes to Wayne Tigges, who's singing the most unpleasant role of Nourabad, with the emphasis on bad—this high priest is a terrible guy. But Tigges, as he did with four villainous roles in Hoffman a couple of years ago, delivers the goods. Emmanuel Villaume conducts, at times over-enthusiastically. The wonderful, all-important chorus? Kudos to Susanne Sheston.
Lee Blakeley’s inventive stage direction includes one or two coups de théâtre that help make this Pearl Fishers seem even better than it is. The first act’s funerary details emphasize the perils of pearl-diving and the need for divine protection. Leïla’s entrance may not exactly outdo Botticelli’s Venus, but it’s smashing nonetheless. The storm scene in Act 2 will knock your socks off.
Scenic design by Jean-Marc Puissant, equally thoughtful and original, leads the eye from SFO's auditorium into the 19th century theatrical decrepitude of something like Peter Brooks' Bouffes du Nord in Paris and thence to the massively picture-framed depiction of a mythic, fictitious Ceylon. A brilliant notion, and seeing's believing. Brigitte Reiffenstuel garbs the chorus and principals soberly, except for Leïla, whose Act 1 costume transforms her into a gorgeous scarlet goddess-puppet. Her slinky, art deco gown in Act 2 would be just right for El Morocco.
Finally, to return to my movie analogy: despite an usher's warning, it wasn't popcorn that a nearby opera fan was eating throughout the third act. It was nachos. As the SFO's slogan puts it, "Only in New Mexico."