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Yet again, less is more

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
02/28/2015 -  & March 1*, 3, 6, 7 (Miami), 12, 14 (Fort Lauderdale) 2015
Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles
Sydney Mancasola*/Emily Birsan (Leïla), Daniel Bates*/Philippe Talbot (Nadir), Will Hughes*/Corey McKern (Zurga), Burak Bilgili (Nourabad)
Florida Grand Opera Chorus, Brett Karlin (chorus master), Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, Anthony Barrese (conductor)
A. Scott Perry (director), J. Michael Wingfield (scenic design), Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costume design), Donald E. Thomas (lighting design), Ranjana Warier (choreography)

D. Bates (© Brittany Mazzurco)

Though this opera is much loved and has begun to find a place not just on the fringe of the repertoire, it is often dismissed. People often apologize when defending it. Is it because the libretto is as weak as a Monogram Pictures’ jungle drama from the 40s and 50s? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that Il trovatore, The Magic Flute and Samson et Dalila would have disappeared immediately had they not been surrounded by music that is hummable to even non-opera lovers. For some reason we are often encouraged to resist being merely “entertained;” if composers and librettists do not begin with entertainment as their primary goal, their works fall out of the repertory very quickly. Those afraid of opera, believing it is a high brow art form, should see Les Pêcheurs de perles in order to discover that this is not a fair judgment. Bizet’s goal was to write a good show, and with this one, he certainly did.

And despite a few significant flaws, Florida Grand Opera’s production achieves Bizet’s simple goal. The strengths and shortcomings of a young cast are evident. The most anticipated moment of the piece is the first act tenor-baritone duet which came off with magnificent understatement. The voices were never forced and the men were obviously encouraged not to over sing. The melody was thoroughly displayed and not encumbered by unpleasant vibrato which was heard on several recent broadcasts by companies with much greater prestige. Beyond the duet, the men had less success. The Nadir of Daniel Bates hit some solidly sour notes in his first act duet with Leïla, then followed up with a secure and very tender interpretation of the great aria “Je crois entendre encore.” Will Hughes’ Zurga was less successful. With a voice not quite ripe enough, lacking significant agility the coloratura passages were clunky. Regardless, Hughes made his character heroic and the audience was clearly was affected by Zurga’s sacrifice. Nourabad though not a large role can be memorable with a commanding voice. Burak Bilgili started with an unfortunate wobble that got less noticeable as the performance continued.

The star of the show, however, was Sydney Mancasola. Leïla is not an easy role: demanding coloratura that requires a beautiful old-fashioned fluttery sound not often heard today. How much more rewarding it is to see a performer make it look easy. Finally, a singer to keep an eye on.

The lovely, understated, almost dated looking production and costume designs were far more suitable than the last time that Florida Grand Opera offered this opera with the unsettlingly garish and now well travelled Zandra Rhodes’ production. The choreography by Ranjana Warier was dreadful in spite of the enthusiastic dancers. Yet somehow with an opera this over-the-top in silliness, it worked.

Anthony Barrese demonstrated the essential lightness that makes this delicate piece so effective. The only time that the orchestration gets really big is during choral moments and Florida Grand Opera is lucky to have an ensemble that can soar yet remain unpretentiously true to the spirit of the piece. Director A. Scott Perry also seemed to have the “less is more” approach that kept one focused on what matters most with The Pearl Fishers and that is the music.

Audience members attending their first opera were lucky. This is the sort of performance that can create opera lovers.

Jeff Haller



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