Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863)
Opera in three acts, music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré
Performed in French, with English supertitles
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak
The Opera Carolina Chorus
Stage Director Bernard Uzan, with associate director Fenlon Lamb
Choreographer Merk Diamond
Set Design Bernard Uzan & Michael Baumgarten
Lighting and Projection Design Michael Baumgarten
Costume Design Betsy Blackmore
Zurga - Mark Walkers
Nadir - Chad Johnson
Leila - Janinah Burnett
Nourabad - John Fortson
Since I've been attending Opera Carolina productions, this one was the most beautiful to date, and one of the most visually striking shows I've ever seen in my long years as an opera lover. French stage director/set designer Bernard Uzan, and set, lighting, and projections designer Michael Baumgarten put together stunning, magnificent sets with ultra-realistic projections, based upon an original by Roberto Oswald. It is a pity that the production pictures that I got don't show the stage from a distance, which would allow me to demonstrate to our readers the incredible beauty of these sets. The following picture shows a bit more than the others, but still, doesn't do justice to the visual feast. It depicts the moment of the storm, but there were so many others - beach scenes, forests, palm trees, moonlit skies, dawn and dusk, fire... I don't recall being transported to the time and place where an opera is set - in this case ancient Ceylon - as efficiently, in any live production I've attended in the last several years. It wasn't just the projection imagery - the lighting was also very evocative.
Photos by jonsilla.com / Opera Carolina
Also, I've rarely heard so much ovation during an opera. It all started when the curtains went up and the audience gasped and applauded an extremely realistic Brahma temple in the background of a beach, with a full moon reflecting on the waters of the ocean. You know, one gets applause and shouts of "Bravo" or "Brava" after the main arias... Tonight, the usually extremely well-behaved Opera Carolina audience couldn't stop applauding even while the orchestra was playing - everything was just so stunning that people couldn't get a grip on themselves! After the show, I've also rarely heard so many comments made out loud - "Oh wow, this was remarkable!" said a gentleman. "It was great" added a lady. Another gentleman completed: "the most beautiful I've ever seen.
Photos by jonsilla.com / Opera Carolina
Also absolutely perfect was the blocking. Again, I've rarely seen such precise movements by a chorus and the singing artists, with the rather large Belk Theater stage never appearing too rarefied - or too crowded either, for that matter. The choreography, recovering elements from Eastern Asian culture, was also very good.
Photos by jonsilla.com / Opera Carolina
Costumes were great, especially in third act. Lighting was just astonishing.
So, OK, we got a great visual show. What about the music?
Maestro Meena is in Italy, and I was apprehensive driving in. This man who is the soul of Opera Carolina (he performs multiple functions for the company) wasn't there, so, what to expect?
Well, in Mr. Meena's absence, the company made the smart decision of bringing in a French conductor who deeply understands this score. Tempi were precise, transitions were smooth, there was good synchrony, and the dynamics were very faithful to this opera's ups and downs, opening space for the singers to use mezza-voce. Regarding the orchestra, again, this was one of the best Pearl Fishers I've heard. As live shows go, mishaps do happen - there was a moment when one could hear a run-away piccolo that got too loud. Hush, hush, piccolo!
Singing-wise, first act wasn't perfect. The chorus came in a bit cold and made a few mistakes at times, with some hints of off-key singing here and there. In his first aria, Chad Johnson had passagio problems, not maintaining pitch throught the transition to the head voice. He visibly improved by the time he got to "Je crois entendre encore" and was very delicate and dreamy in its rendition - I was one of the people who shouted "Bravo!" Janinah Burnett was very good throughout the show, with secure acting, nice coloratura. and compelling trills. The comprimario role of Nourabad was correctly rendered by John Fortson. The Zurga-Nadir duet, "Au fond du temple saint" was exquisitely performed.
Now, especial mention needs to be reserved for the best star of the night, Mark Walters. What a superb and well modulated instrument! I couldn't spot a single moment of stumbling over anything (well, maybe there is a bit of room for improvement regarding French diction, but that's about it; everything else was great!): Mark kept going with aplomb from beginning to end, being the only singer that in my opininon didn't have any trouble in the first act before warming up. His acting was nuanced, and did convey very clearly what he had mentioned in his interview with Opera Lively - the idea that Zurga was already expecting from the beginning that the priestess he had invited into the island was Léïla, an interesting twist in the psychology of the situation.
All other singers and the chorus sang acts II and III better than act I, making up for the fact that this opera is a bit uneven with act I having better numbers than the subsequent acts. My wife who has encountered The Pearl Fishers for the first time tonight, was pleasantly surprised with acts II and III; in my opinion, thanks to the beautiful performance by the singers.
Hits - Great sets, visually stunning projections, with nice costumes. Spectacular lighting. Very good blocking. The condutor and the orchestra were spot on. Good acting accross the board. Excellent Zurga. Very good Léïla. Very good Nadir. Good Nourabad. Comfortable theater, full house. The musical values improved as time went by. Good choreography with attractive dancers. They used the alternative ending when the King is stabbed to death, in front of our eyes and ears (and I like this ending better than the one where he is just engulfed by the fire).
Misses - unlike the company's usual behavior, the show started some 12 minutes late. I delivered the pre-opera talk in a rather noisy environment, then the microphone failed in the middle of it (I would like to make a suggestion to move these pre-opera talks to a quieter area - Opera Philadelphia, for instance, does it in the orchestra seating area, then people vacate the area and re-enter to get to their seats when it's time for the show to start). A minor orchestral error (a piccolo that was too loud for a brief moment). A couple of passagio errors. Shaky chorus at first (they improved a lot, later on).
So, given that the misses were rather normal for live theater, I'm grading this performance "A minus." While some misses above were real (in my humble opinion), they do sound like nitpicking, given that this production was very beautiful both in visual and in musical values. Most likely these minor mishaps won't happen in nights two and three of the run.
I did sense that Opera Carolina wasn't the usual well-oiled Lamborghini machine in the absence of Maestro Meena. Not by a lot (it was still a Ferrari), but a tiny bit less organized and fool-proof as compared to when the multi-talented man is there at the helm.
In the after party, I chatted with maestro Joel-Hornack, and was glad to learn that he loves contemporary opera, and quotes among his favorites some of mine: Thomas Adès and Sciarrino. He told me that unlike Italy, France is still holding appropriate levels of governmental funding for opera. He expressed distress over Regietheater trends creeping up in French and Belgian productions, but still, according to him, not in extreme ways like in Germany. We had a pretty funny exchange regarding nudity on stage. I'm afraid I can't reproduce it here... [laughs]. He told me his favorite opera of all time is La Traviata.
Also in the party, when I talked with Mark Walkers I learned that he loved the experience of singing in an Opera Carolina production and would look forward to coming back, but regreted the fact that the artistic and general director and principal conductor maestro Meena was unable to see him on stage, in addition to having auditioned him. I told him that we'll need to convey to the maestro how good he is, because we'd also love to have him back [PS - I've just emailed the maestro to express this view].
The lady from Wells Fargo confirmed that the private bank will again be sponsoring Opera Carolina for the 2013-2014 season, which is great news. On schedule, four major events rather than three (great, we're moving back to the pre-economic crisis time) - a recital to open the season, then Aïda, Il Trittico, and, yes, The Flying Dutchman! A fully staged Wagner piece right here in North Carolina! (Another outstanding regional company, Piedmont Opera, will be doing it as well).
The review above is of the operning night on 4/13/13). The company will present the show two more times [see info by clicking [here], on April 18 and 21. Absolutely not to be missed! Exclusive Opera Lively interviews with the singers can be found [here] and an extended version of Opera Lively's pre-opera talk (about double of what was delivered at the theater, including lyrics and video clips) can be found [here].
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