Here's my Wednesday, October 8, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of Lyric Opera of Chicago's opening night performance of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles on Monday, October 6, 2008.
Bizet's 'Pearl' not his finest gem
Pleasant treats are saving grace of rare staging
BY ANDREW PATNER
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Through November 4
What exactly do we get from a staging today of Bizet's second produced opera, The Pearl Fishers?
Is it all the wrapping around one of the most popular duets in opera? The rare opportunity to hear a great "B-side" tenor aria? An exercise in music history letting us examine an 1863 work written when the French composer was just 24, 12 years before he capped his brief life with Carmen? A chance to inhale "exotic" opera of the type that inspired many a 1930s RKO island movie? Or the latest showcase for barihunk Nathan Gunn to strut and flex without a shirt?
All of the above, I suppose, and certainly that's what we got when Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its revival Monday night of the stage rarity (the Metropolitan Opera has not presented the work since Enrico Caruso was in its cast in 1916).
Although I'm a Bizet fan, and there are many pleasant surprises here, I'm not sure that they add up to a worthwhile project for Lyric, just 11 seasons since it first put on the scholarly edition of Bizet's sophomore effort.
The kind word for the plot and libretto here is clunky. And spread out over three acts and two intermissions, this tale of two old pearl-diving friends in Ceylon in love with the same Hindu priestess goes from the predictable to the unintentionally comic.
Still, designer Scott Marr has replaced the original Hubert Monloup sets and costumes with a look that's more colorful and handsome. And director Herbert Kellner turns the heat up on Nicolas Joël's 1997-98 production.
The cast is young and all-American. The great duet "Au fond du temple saint" (as with most of the opera, translation into English only makes things worse) comes 15 minutes into the first act. Gunn was steady in the baritone half, but tenor Eric Cutler was both ardent and believable in his devotion to romantic and fraternal love. Cutler also delivered the goods sweetly in his romance, "Je crois entendre encore."
As the veiled priestess/ love-object, soprano Nicole Cabell tried to strike a balance between her pleasing singing and the King Kong-style acting demanded of her. Another Lyric training program alum, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, was a solid, quick-to-anger priest Nourabad.
Conductor John Mauceri sits on Lyric's orchestra and Bizet's score to the point that the beautiful melodies and harmonies become sluggish and repetitious. Given the superb work Lyric is presenting with another 19th century French work, Massenet's Manon, it remains a mystery why management keeps asking Mauceri back.
For the record, Gunn has his top off within the first few minutes and again for the entire slow stretch of the third act. It's not music, but he gives you something to focus on.
GRIFFIN TO DIRECT 'MERRY WIDOW'
Broadway baby (The Color Purple and The Apple Tree) and local theatre stalwart Gary Griffin (left) will make his Lyric Opera directorial debut next season with Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow, Lyric general director William Mason announced Tuesday.
Griffin will direct a new production of the operetta, which will star Lyric training program alums American soprano Elizabeth Futral and Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell who sang together in Lyric’s 2003/2004 season production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Emmanuel Villaume, now leading the superb Lyric Manon, will conduct.