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Bizet Birthday Bash

Washington National Opera - Kennedy Center
09/20/2008 -  and September 22*, 25, 28m, October 1, 4, 7
Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles
Norah Amsellem (Leïla), Charles Castronovo (Nadir), Trevor Scheunemann (Zurga), Denis Sedov (Nourabad)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers, John Malashock (Choreography), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Stephen Gathman (Chorus Master), Giuseppe Grazioli (Conductor)
Zandra Rhodes (Set and Costume Design), Ron Vodicka (Lighting Design), Andrew Sinclair (Stage Director)

Norah Amsellem (© Washington National Opera)

Washington National Opera continues its 2008 Fall Season with a completely charming and captivating production of Les Pêcheurs de perles, celebrating the 170th anniversary of the birthday of its composer Georges Bizet.
The production features imaginative cartoon like sets and very colorful costumes by British fashion icon Zandra Rhodes. Rhodes’ set and costumes coupled with the wonderfully atmospheric lighting by Rod Vodicka greatly enhances the exotic and highly perfumed nature of the opera. I found it seductive and hypnotizing from beginning to end.

Les Pêcheurs de perles is not one of the “great operas,” but it is filled with memorable music which has kept the work in the repertoire and maintained its standing as an audience favorite for over 100 years. The characters are a bit “wooden” and one-dimensional. However, director Andrew Sinclair has done a great deal to breath life into these characters and give them a more three dimensional appearance. His staging is traditional in its format but he lets the opera speak for itself, and that is always a good thing. This is not to say his direction was not filled with wonderful touches…it was. His having Leila recline on a large pillow for the singing of her aria was magical, and the execution of Zurga by a rifle shot was dramatically compelling. This was his directorial debut with the WNO and it was impressive.

The production also features a trio of young, fresh voices ideally cast. As Zurga, chosen leader of the pearl fishers, baritone Trevor Scheunemann (a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist) displayed an excellent stage presence and a beautiful voice. He is tall and handsome, which combined with his fine singing and acting makes a most positive impression.

Tenor Charles Castronovo made an exciting company debut as Nadir, the boyhood friend of Zurga. His voice is much beefier than most tenors who sing this role employing an excessive use of head voice and falsetto masquerading as French style. He is rather “beefy” himself, and delighted the audience to no end by parading his well-shaped “pecs” shirtless through most of the opera. His singing was passionate and secure, effortlessly traversing the high tessitura of Nadir’s aria “Je crois entendre encore.”

As Leïla, the “vestal virgin” of the Temple of Candi, with whom the lifelong friends Zurga and Nadir are both compulsively obsessed, soprano Norah Amsellem, also in her company debut, was sheer perfection. Vocally and stylistically she was ideal in this role. Her singing of the famous aria “Comme autrefois” was one of the enchanting highlights of the evening. Beautifully staged and lit, she made an unforgettable impression in this scene. When she joined tenor Castronovo in the exquisite duet “Leïla, Leïla…” perfume filled the stage. I found these moments absolutely beguiling.

The singing of bass Denis Sedov as the high priest Nourabad was not to my liking. His acting was also completely “wooden” in spite of Andrew Sinclair’s direction. He seemed to be constantly parading around the stage without the slightest idea of what he was about. His voice is woolly and tremulous and reminiscent of Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, though he is not an artist of that caliber. I thought he would be better used in a character role like Pooh-Bah in The Mikado.

Stephan Gathman’s chorus sang with its customary excellence and the WNO Dancers were exciting and entertaining in their ethnic Ceylonese divertissements.

Maestro Giuseppe Grazioli demonstrated a masterful understanding of French style. The WNO Orchestra demonstrated exemplary playing for him with much incense and exotic sonorities rising from the orchestra pit.

If The Pearl Fishers is an opera you enjoy and you find yourself in Washington, D.C. you will want to catch one of the performances. You will not likely find a production of this quality for some time to come.

Micaele Sparacino



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