At Santa Fe Opera dramaturge Cori Ellison's prelude talk before opening night of The Pearl Fishers, she often mentioned the problematic use of Orientalism in 19th-century art from Western Europe. French composer Georges Bizet wrote the opera when he was only 24, and in it was music pilfered from pieces he wrote even earlier in his life; so, not only does the Ceylon (Sri Lanka)-based story employ troublesome tropes about Easterners, but it also features the idealism of youth, the lushness of infantile romance and no lack of adolescent-feeling passion.
SFO's presentation this year, a revival of its highly successful 2012 production, doesn't try to be anything other than what it is: an epic staging of a dramatic love story set in an exotic locale. Unlike this season's La Bohème, which perhaps took on too many extraneous themes to thrust itself into relevance, The Pearl Fishers, directed by Shawna Lucey, eases back on its heels and lets the story do the talking. Albeit with inspired scenery from Jean-Marc Puissant, gasp-inducing lighting from Rich Fisher and nimble conducting from Timothy Myers, perhaps the story had some help, but still—it's not trying to be anything that Bizet did not write.
But rather than triteness, into which a production like this could easily and probably happily skip, The Pearl Fishers is breathtaking, engrossing and deeply satisfying.
Ellison referenced postcolonial scholar Edward Said's statement that the East remains "Europe's deepest and most recurring image of the Other," and Bizet's interpretation—the happy natives content to succumb to God's will (and eventually the will of Westerners, naturally), the constant reference to destiny, the strong adherence to power structure—is mightily conquered in this production by the principal characters' defiant humanity, portrayed by impeccable singers who are also great actors.
As the scene opens on a shore in Ceylon, we see a former leader laid to rest in a tender ceremony by the villagers, the whole scene framed in a giant—well, frame. Literally, the whole tableau is surrounded by a gilded wooden rectangle. The townspeople elect Zurga (baritone Anthony Clark Evans) to be their new leader, and in short order, prodigal son Nadir (Ilker Arcayürek, tenor) bursts through a doorway in the Temple of Doom-style wall, looking every bit the 1863 version of Indiana Jones. Nadir has been traveling the world, and has returned to his homeland to reunite with Zurga, his childhood best friend; the two sing the opera's most famous duet, "Au fond du temple saint," in brotherly harmony. Where the actors may not have had much chemistry with one another, each's sublime tones made up for any perceived lack. The two are excellently cast.
The story they tell is a touching one: Years ago, they both fell in love with a priestess named Leïla, but in order to preserve their friendship, they both swore her off and promised their friendship was stronger than that desire. Cool, cool.
But then! (Isn't there always a "But then"?) A boat appears on the shore (in reality, rising slowly on SFO's hydraulic lift at the back of the stage). The platform, held aloft by shirtless cast members in harem pants, bobs and weaves pleasantly, truly appearing to be adrift on water. Seated in the boat is an elegant veiled woman (of course, we know it is Leïla—Corinne Winters, of whose fan club I would like to be president, and more on that later). Nadir staggers to a corner of the stage, clearly in the throes of romantic paralysis. She sings, and he knows it's her. Arcayürek becomes a lovesick teenager before our very eyes, and it's thrilling.
Zurga tells Leïla that she is not to break her priestly virtue, lest she meet an immediate death. She agrees to that, while also recognizing Nadir. She's whisked away by Brahman priest Nourabad (a menacing Robert Pomakov) to a secluded grotto where she can rest safely and chastely.
Predictably, Nadir goes to find her in her hiding place, and they embrace in sweet, giddy passion. Predictably, Zurga finds out. Predictably, it doesn't go terribly well. There's rain, there's fire, there's death and destruction. The staging of this one is positively exciting (especially for someone like me, who wasn't in Santa Fe in summer 2012), and the swift story moves along at such a clip that you simply can't risk looking away; either that, or leaves us languid and happy in a pool of musical honey, and neither is a bad thing.
Indeed, the opera's largest set piece—the world itself—cooperated beautifully. A gorgeous sunset filled the gilded frame, and when the characters sang longingly of the caress of soft evening breezes, that's exactly what the audience got. Truly, we were too entranced to even clap at the end of some arias, and I fear the cast and orchestra may have perceived that as dissatisfaction. It was precisely the opposite. You could have heard a pin drop in the Crosby Theatre; we were all rapturously holding our breath.
The ensemble was an integral part of the magic, a fine-tuned machine of expert dynamics that was alternately buoyant, mournful, whispering or jubilant when the libretto required. The youthful and exuberant conducting from Myers led the orchestra like a roller coaster, nimbly conquering a score that was inspired by Eastern motifs but firmly European in sound, lush and heartbreaking and exhilarating all at once.
Poised like the cherry on top of the rich sundae of this opera was soprano Winters, the beautiful and pristine Leïla. The 36-year-old star was awfully sensual for a priestess, perfect for her eventual love story with Nadir, and an absolute joy to watch on the stage. Winters clearly adores singing; even in the saddest of pleas for leniency from Zurga, she remains effervescent, flitting around the stage like an iridescent hummingbird. It's impossible to take your eyes off her. "Comme autrefois dans la nuit" left my jaw on the floor and my eternal fandom in Winters' camp.
Finally, as the opera slides toward its conclusion, the humanity we have already seen in Leïla and Nadir spreads to Zurga. The leader becomes a mortal human at the sight of the fierce and powerful Leïla, and stereotypes crumble at their feet: Yes, perhaps this opera's larger "exotic" themes are dated firmly to the 1800s, but the visceral humanity of its principal characters brings the audience poignantly but happily back to Earth.
The Pearl Fishers
Six performances through Aug. 23. $42-$320. The Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900