Saturday January 20 10:09 am

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

"The Pearl Fishers" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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Composed by Bizet in 1863 when he was still a very young man and unknown in his native France (his most famous work, "Carmen," was composed 12 years later) the work does suffer from a slightly weak libretto. Both Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon, who are credited with writing the libretto, did not respect the fledgling composer (who three years earlier had won the Prix de Rome and spent his time studying in Italy rather than being involved with the Parisian operatic scene) and were consequently not that thrilled with the assignment. Their subpar efforts do not completely mar "The Pearl Fishers" which features a surprisingly engaging and varied score. Under the concise and economically astute direction of Andrew Sinclair this four-character drama does not get lost in the grandeur and spectacle that Ms. Rhodes has created.

Quite simply a story of two friends who have fallen in love with the same woman many years before, both Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) and Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani) have denied their feelings for her and sworn to not let that fact destroy their bond of friendship. Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Ceylon the opera opens on a beach as the village elects a new chief, who is Zurga.

Nadir, a hunter who has been absent for some time, has returned as the villagers are preparing for a sea-going expedition to harvest pearls and are instructing the young people to dance to keep the evil spirits away as they depart on their journey. Nourabad (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), the High Priest, has brought a mysterious priestess to the village. Once a year, the custom is to have a veiled virgin pray for the protection of the pearl fishers. This woman, Leila (soprano Marina Rebeka) is the same priestess whom Zurga and Nadir fell in love with when they saw her praying in Candi. In the secluded ruins of an Indian temple Leila is confined and guarded by Nourabad. Nadir cannot resist his strong attraction to her and must be with her so he finds her location and spends the night with her. Discovered by Nourabad, the two lovers are captured and must await their ultimate fate, which will be determined by the newly appointed chief, Zurga.

It is not difficult to see why so many women throughout the world are swooning over the internationally celebrated Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. As Zurga he proves to be a strong actor gifted with an exceptionally rich and powerful voice. His muscular and strapping physique are on full display in Act One, when he is shirtless. His rugged good looks and valiant characterization combine to create a memorable Zurga. Mr. Polenzani is following up his star turn in "Rigoletto" from earlier this season with another well-sung role as Nadir. His extensive history in and apparent love of French opera is put to good use here. It is a welcome return to the Lyric stage for Ms. Rebeka. Her clear and expressive voice were magnificent, especially during Act Two. Encumbered by a full facial veil and massive headdress in Act One, when her character is in disguise, her fine soprano was slightly constricted as it was filtered through sheer fabric. Mr. Silvestrelli, always a reliable figure at Lyric, produced glorious sound in the limited role of Nourabad.

Just as stellar as the talent on stage is the indelible imprint that designer Zandra Rhodes has placed on this beautiful work. First mounted in 2004 for San Diego Opera this exotic imagery is based on research of Sri Lankan art and architecture. Her color palette is truly unique. Magical Day-Glo turquoise, pink and peach colored palm trees sway under a bright orange sun. Saris are yellow, teal and periwinkle while young maidens toss fuchsia rose petals upon the orchid silk sheets of a bed adorned with plush lilac pillows. Her textiles feature seashells and everything is covered in her signature wiggles and squiggly lines.

The interior of her temple in Act Two, with its eight massive columns finely decorated with endless details and a dominant mosaic ceiling portrait can only be described as breath-taking and awe-inspiring. Lighting Designer Ron Vodicka has bathed it all in intense and highly saturated light. Particularly arresting is his use of black light during the transition scene between Act One and Act Two. Not only does it evoke twilight but it gave the palm trees a completely different look. It's not every day that you will see the white dress shirts of the gentlemen in the audience lit under phosphorescent light. Act Three has bright red, yellow and orange as the pearl fishers' encampment has been set ablaze.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts a score that is rapturous and will transport you to another world. Unexpected delights include an almost militaristic sound in some passages that evokes the tempo of a processional march. Chorus Master Michael Black has ensured that all of the villagers sing in heavenly harmony. Choreographer John Malashock, assisted by Michael Mizerany, have created imaginative and authentic movement. The dancers, many of whom perform at one point with large masks that engulf their entire head, include Jacob Ashley, Nikolas Chen, Sam Crouch, Marian Faustino, Tom Mattingly, Ginny Ngo, Jimi Loc Nguyen, Michelle Reid, Todd Rhoades, Jacqueline Stewart, Nicholas Strasberg and Jessica Wolfrum.

If you are feeling like you need to get away from the stress and pressure of the holiday season but don't have the time to take a vacation, dive into the astonishing world of "The Pearl Fishers" and experience a whole new world. This sensational production will captivate your heart and overwhelm your senses.

“The Pearl Fishers” runs through December 10th at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Best parking option: The Poetry Garage, 201 West Madison, pay $12 in advance at www.thepoetrygarage.com. Valet parking is also available - $30. Running time is 2 hours 25 minutes, with an intermission. Remaining performances are Dec. 10th at 2pm; Nov. 29th, Dec. 4th and 7th at 7:30pm. Tickets start at $69. FYI (312) 827-5600 or www.lyricopera.org/pearlfishers.