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A Bountiful Catch

Lyric Opera
11/19/2017 -  & November 22, 25, 29, December 4, 7, 10, 2017
Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles
Mariusz Kwiechen (Zurga), Matthew Polenzani (Nadir), Andrea Silvestrelli (Nourabad), Marina Rebeka (Leila)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus, Michael Black (Chorus Master), Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor)
Andrew Sinclair (Director), Zandra Rhodes (Set and Costume Designer), Ron Vodicka (Lighting), Michael Block (Chorus Master), John Malashock (Choreography)

M. Kwiecien, M. Rebeka, M. Polenzani (© Andrew Cioffi)

The Lyric Opera of Chicago managed a miracle in its production of Bizet’s early opera. This is a weak work by a 24-year-old winner of the Prix de Rome who got his chance of having an opera mounted at the Opéra Comique. The plot is more improbable than usual and the work has the trappings of 19th century French orientalisme and the bourgeois decadence of French opera under Napoleon III’s hedonistic reign. It was forgotten after its first run at the Opéra Comique in 1863 and was not performed again during Bizet’s short life. As the composer posthumously gained prestige thanks to his masterpiece, Carmen, the opera gained respectability and had some success in the late 19th century. This work was rightfully forgotten for almost a century, but thanks to the popularity on disc of the tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint,” it has been exhumed and is being performed relatively frequently. I have seen other productions of this work and I have always regretted the wasted time. However, this production assembled three amazing singers in the leading three roles. The famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” was interpreted with panache, and, as expected, the public went wild. The mood-setting tenor aria “Je crois entendre encore” was sung exquisitely sung by Matthew Polenzani, whose excellent diction managed to give the often repeated “ravissement” and “charmant” their proper nasal sound without sounding ugly.

The opera’s two big hits are in the first act, leaving the public hungry for more goodies throughout the second and third act, but they never came. For the second act’s soprano aria “Me voilà seule dans la nuit”, Marina Rebeka showed off her lyric agile voice. Hers is a sensual voice with natural trills, that is somewhat wasted in this role. However, thanks to her seductive voice, she brought life to a two-dimensional character. In the duet “Ton cœur n’a pas compris le mien,” Polenzani is ardently passionate, and Rebeka is initially distant. As the duet heats up, Rebeka becomes warmer, ending in united passion with Polenzani, and with a beautiful pianissimo on the final note. Mariusz Kwiechen sang the third act baritone aria “L’orage s’est calmé... Tendre ami de mon jeune âge” with Gallic elegance and impeccable phrasing. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the evil priest Nourabad had a tired cavernous voice and was not on the level of the three leads. The Chicago Lyric must have an excellent language coach, for the French diction of the three leads was indeed exceptional. Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra without overwhelming the singers, bringing out the exotic colours in the music.

The surrealist sets seemed to be inspired by fauvist French painter Raoul Dufy. The screaming pink, turquoise, yellow and orange made the setting both exotic and unreal. Perhaps this helped make the absurd plot more credible. It definitely put one in the mood for fantasy. It was a relief to have this surreal decor rather than the usual mix of mis-matching orientalist bric-à-brac, often used for this and other “exotic” operas.

As several scenes take place at night, Ron Vodicka did a great job with the lighting. The burning of the village during the scene in which Leila and Nadir were to be killed was fabulously scary. Choreographer John Malashock made the exotic dances more important than they usually are in this work. Nonetheless, they were not intrusive, and helped transport the public to an exotic world. The dances seemed more Thai than Ceylonese, but this liberty taken was more than acceptable.

Ossama el Naggar



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