When one thinks of the French composer Georges Bizet, the first reaction, of course, is "Carmen," the opera that came late in his life and exploded in popularity in the decades after the composer's death in 1875. Today, "Carmen" remains on (or near) everyone's "most popular opera" list.
But Bizet created another notable opera, "The Pearl Fishers," as a 25-year-old in 1863. Lyric Opera of Chicago's is offering this underrated work as its second production of the season, which opened Monday night.
As with "Carmen," "The Pearl Fishers" was first met with lukewarm audience response. But it, too, saw new life after the composer's death, even surviving so-called "help" from others, who changed the thrust of the opera's ending before Bizet's original version was restored in a new edition published in the 1970s.
The Lyric has chosen (for the most part) the original 1863 version for the revival of its Hubert Monloup production seen here in the 1997-98 season. Scott Marr, the Lyric's production design director, has reworked the sets and principal singers' costumes. The result is a well-thought-out depiction of ancient Ceylon, where the opera takes place.
"The Pearl Fishers" is, most of all, a showpiece for singers, its compact cast (four major roles) led by the romantic triangle of the priestess Leila and the two men competing for her affections: Zurga, leader of the pearl fishers (baritone Nathan Gunn), and Nadir, a former pearl fisher (tenor Eric Cutler).
Soprano Nicole Cabell, an alumna of the Lyric's Ryan Center for American Artists who has exploded onto the world opera scene, portrays Leila, the the two men's love interest. Rounding out the all-American cast is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (another Ryan Center alum) as the high priest Nourabad.
What makes "The Pearl Fishers" so enjoyable is the wealth of great tunes woven by Bizet into a dramatic story that holds the audience's interest. The biggest tune, of course, is the Act 1 duet in which Zurga and Nadir pledge an oath of friendship ("Au fond du temple saint"). Most well-known opera duets are of the soprano-tenor variety, but this tenor-baritone duet, with harp accompaniment prominent in the orchestra, is a marvelous exception. It is the calling card of this opera.
But there's much more marvelous music, including Leila's Act 2 aria, "Comme autrefois," for which Cabell received a rousing ovation at Monday's opening night. Also, there are duets for Cabell and Gunn, and Cabell and Cutler, along with a powerful portrayal of the high priest by Van Horn.
Conductor John Mauceri on Monday led the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus with passion and fidelity to Bizet's melodic score. Donald Nally's chorus was also in fine form, particularly in the opening villagers' chorus of Act 1, the prayer chorus, "Brahma, divin Brahma," that closes Act 2, and the powerful concluding scene of Act 3.
In sum, "The Pearl Fishers" is a very underrated opera that deserves to be seen more often, and the Lyric is thankfully providing that opportunity.
"The Pearl Fishers"
Where: Ardis Krainik Theatre, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.
When: Additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10, 13, 22, 25, Nov. 1 and 4; 2 p.m. Oct. 16 and 19.
Tickets: Call (312) 332-2244, Ext. 5600, or visit lyricopera.org, for availability and reservations; major credit cards accepted.
At a glance
Opera in three acts by Georges Bizet, with libretto by Eugene Cormon abnd Michel Carre.
Herbert Kellner, stage director; Herbert Monloup, original designer; Scott Marr, set and costume designer; Donald Nally, chorus master; Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by John Mauceri.
Nicole Cabell as Leila
Nathan Gunn as Zurga
Eric Cutler as Nadir
Christian Van Horn as Nourabad