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The Highs and Lows of Pearl Fishing

Where has the Dresser been lurking lately? The whacky Centre Pompidou in Paris. The parched Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas. A town hall event in Sheffield, Vermont, with their local poet Galway Kinnell read poems dedicated to other locals living and dead. The Power Center at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for the "Lifting Belly High" poetry conference. And more recently September 28, 2008, Ceylon by way of Washington National Opera's offering of Georges Bizet's Les Pécheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers).

WHAT AUDIENCES VERSUS CRITICS LOVE

The production came to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, from the San Diego Opera where the SDO General Director Ian Campbell for their 2004 season asked Andrew Sinclair to create a new production of The Pearl Fishers, Bizet's fourth opera. Bizet, of course, is best known for his eleventh and final opera Carmen, which premiered in 1875. Neither of these two operas fared well for the composer. Having only one production run of 18 performances in Bizet's lifetime, The Pearl Fishers, though popular with its audience, was panned by the critics. Carmen, which addresses the racy lives of gypsies and bullfighters, ran into a wall of censorship and for 10 years it was not part of the operatic repertoire.

For the most part, the Dresser was satisfactorily entertained by Sinclair's version of The Pearl Fishers. Having recently enjoyed the strange architecture of the Pompidou Center where all the utility pipes are on the outside of the building in eye-catching primary colors, the Dresser thoroughly admired the surreal sets of Zandra Rhodes. If palm trees in arid Vegas tend to be less on the green side and more to the brown, the landscape of the pearl fishers' village was vibrant with red and blue palms.

And who is Zandra Rhodes? Besides also being the costume designer for this opera, she is a British fashion designer. Her choice of costume fabrics is enough to make this show worth seeing. In a single glance, the sari in graded shades of orange and pink that the high priestess Leila wears makes her sexual attraction to the main men of this story completely understandable. Pearl_9-08_119SM.jpg

ONE GIRL, TWO GUYS

The story is about two friends--the hunter Nadir and the newly appointed village chieftain Zurga--who had a falling out over a woman they both wanted. The popular Nadir shows up in the pearl fishers village as Zurga accepts his new leadership role. Zurga is guarded about welcoming Nadir back to the village, but the two agree to preserve their friendship by foregoing the pursuit of this woman. Immediately, the veiled Leila as the sacred virgin shows up to bless the village against the dangers of the sea. Zurga doesn't recognize her, but Nadir does. Meanwhile, the high priest Nourabad reminds Leila of her vow of celibacy, which is soon broken when Nadir shows up in her bedchamber at a highly protected castle. Pearl_9-08_150SM.jpgThey are quickly discovered and sentenced to death by Zurga. Zurga's jealously and rage is fanned by Leila's plea to release Nadir and let the punishment be hers alone. The outcome of the story hangs on a necklace Leila was given by a refugee she risked her life for when she was child.

The Dresser who likes to be surprised as a story unfolds thought for sure that Leila's necklace was a gift from Nadir and that was why the sexual attraction was strong. Jump now to the next paragraph, if you don't want to know the sex of the baby, oops, the original owner of the necklace. No, the twist is that Leila as a child had saved the life of Zurga and once he sees the necklace, he knows that he must prevent their execution so like any maverick, he sees the trouble he has caused and causes more--he sets his village on fire. The lovers escape and Nourabad and his men, bang! bang! off Zurga.

NADIR AS THE HIGH POINT

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The star of this production is tenor Charles Castronovo as Nadir. He is the same singer who performed this role in the San Diego Opera's production. His execution of Bizet's uplifting, lyric music inspires breath in the listener and the Dresser felt thoroughly rested in hearing Castronovo sing.

Of course, the crowning piece of the opera is the duet "Au fond du temple saint" sung by Nadir and Zurga. Baritone Trevor Scheunemann supports the beauty of this duet, but generally speaking, Scheunemann is a young singer (formerly a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist) who cannot yet muster the expressive depth required for a starring role. Pearl_9-08_109Sm.jpg Moreover, the role of Zurga comes with problems that show up in the third act and which director Sinclair, in his program notes, explicated with care as he discussed how he experimented with changes to Bizet's original score. What the Dresser experienced was Zurga acting like an out-of-control adolescent when he finds out that Leila loves Nadir. Scheunemann as Zurga awkwardly tries to sexually engage the distraught Leila, played by French soprano Norah Amsellem. To that, one in Leila's position, prone as it was, can only say, "Get real!"

SEEKING THE ZENITH--OR "THAT'S ALL"

The question that came to the Dresser's mind as she viewed this scene of Zurga's romantic failure was how would a more experienced player handle this character if, in fact, he would agree to play this role. The final action is Nourabad, played by Russian bass Denis Sedov, and his men shooting Zurga in what the Dresser labels as a ho-hum bummer of a scene. The earworm catch phrase that echoes in the Dresser's head comes from Meryl Streep in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, "That's all." Bang, bang, the Washington National audience was thus dismissed.

In all fairness though, the discussion of this production is not complete without a few words about the energetic and sexually charged choreography by John Malaschock. The dancing begins right away with scantily clad male dancers who move with admirable physicality and are soon joined by women dancers who add to the sexual energy. The dance numbers combined with the beautifully delivered music under the baton of Giuseppe Grazioli, the surreal sets, and lush fabrics of the costumes made for pleasurable sensory entertainment. Except for Castronovo, the singing was not remarkable. The Dresser thinks that if she could hear only one more opera before her Maker dismissed her from this life, she would choose Mozart's The Magic Flute. However, if she could hear only one more operatic piece "Au fond du temple saint" would definitely be a contender.

The Dresser finds something virginal and dismissive in the narrating voice of "Cherry Tomatoes" by Sandra Beasley, winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize where this poem begins Beasley's award-winning book Theories of Falling.

CHERRY TOMATOES

Little bastards of vine.

Little demons by the pint.

Red eggs that never hatch,

just collapse and rot. When

my mom told me to gather

their grubby bodies

into my skirt, I'd cry. You 

and your father, she'd chide-

the way, each time I kicked 

and wailed against sailing, 

my dad shook his head, said

You and your mother.

Now, a city girl, I ease one 

loose from its siblings,

from its clear plastic coffin,

place it on my tongue.

Just to try. The smooth

surface resists, resists,

and erupts in my mouth: 

seeds, juice, acid, blood

of a perfect household.

The way, when I finally 

went sailing, my stomach 

was rocked from inside

out. Little boat, big sea.

Handful of skinned sunsets.

by Sandra Beasley
from Theories of Falling

Copyright © 2008 by Sandra Beasley

Photos by Karin Cooper

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 30, 2008 2:18 PM.

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