All praise to director Allan Naplan and the Madison Opera board for bringing us a lovely opera by Georges Bizet. No, not his sensationally popular and relentlessly overworked Carmen, but his earlier gem, The Pearl Fishers, first performed in Paris in 1863 and given its Madison premiere last weekend.
The Pearl Fishers has been denigrated for its shallow libretto (hardly unknown in other operas!) and has suffered neglect under the powerful shadow of Carmen. It also long labored under corrupt performing editions purified only in recent decades. When given a chance, it stands quite handsomely on its own: more frankly lyrical than the blatant Carmen, with some absolutely gorgeous music in its first two acts and valid drama in the last.
Set arbitrarily in exotic Ceylon, the opera tells of friendship destroyed by jealousy but redeemed in self-sacrifice. It has only four characters, three of them men. Last weekend at Overture Hall, Charles Robert Austin's solid bass voice was almost too appealing for the severe character of the high priest, Nourabad. As one of the friends, Nadir, tenor Eric Fennell displayed an attractive lyric voice with a good command of range, but not strong enough to project much in the way of dramatic character or even carrying power.
As Zurga, the other friend, Robert Gardner was working under the burden of illness and medication. For all that, however, his mellow baritone voice and strong theatrical sense brought him bravely through a genuinely convincing portrayal. Vocally, however, the show was stolen by Leah Partridge as Leila, the lovely priestess beloved by both friends. Her strong and beautiful voice, together with confident theatrical and stylistic gifts, gave real credibility to her somewhat improbable character.
The chorus plays an important role in this opera, with lots of lovely things to do. The men sounded rather scrawny at first on Friday evening, but the crew as a whole made a strong showing thereafter. Stephanie Sundine's stage direction was somewhat static, especially for the chorus, but relief was provided by recurrent dancing, colorfully choreographed by Maureen Janson.
The rich costumes (from the Sarasota Opera) were visually glorious, likewise the varied and spectacular sets (from Opera Carolina), under Michael Lincoln's subtle lighting. Through it all, conductor Laurent Campellone led with dedicated vitality in his Madison debut.
An audience like ours deserves occasional alternatives to warhorses. This production was a perfect example of the possibilities.