Pearl Fishers Opening Night at SDO: The Boys Are Good, But Siurina Is The Show

May 3, 2008

The Bottom Line Bizet's Pearl Fisher is a gem worth rediscovering. Catch Ekaterina Siurina, Charles Castronovo, and Malcolm MacKenzie at the San Diego Opera this month!

Bizet's 'The Pearl Fishers' at the San Diego Opera (3 May 2008)

The final opera of the season at San Diego Opera this year is George Bizet's lesser known Les Pecheurs de Perle (The Pearl Fishers), an exotic French opera with a famous all-male duet and an infamously holey plot. It is so rarely staged that being given a free ticket to this show by the SDO is Christmas in May for me.

The story (libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré) concerns the tragic love-triangle between the beautiful Brahmin priestess Leïla, the hunter Nadir, and the pearl fisher king Zurga. Having had their friendly relation strained by a shared love for a beautiful woman, Nadir and Zurga (who is appointed the leader of the pearl fishers at the start of the opera) swear to never let a woman come between them again... Their pledge is nearly immediately tested when Nadir recognizes the newly arrived priestess (who is immediately sworn in by Zurka, under the watchful eyes of High Priest Nourabad, to preserve her virtue and to protect the fishers) as Leïla, the object of both men's affection. Leïla and Nadir are, soon after, caught in compromising circumstances and are condemned to death. Though initially deciding to save them, Zurka's astonished rage upon finally recognizing Leïla's identity causes him to renege and orders the two 'traitors' prepared for execution. The jealous pearl fisher has a change of heart, however, when he is given Leïla’s necklace, which he recognizes as the same one he gave to his rescuer long ago. Valiantly, Zurka sets fire to the village and helps the lovers escape as he stays behind to meet his end at the hand of his angry subjects.

Theatrically questionable as this opera is, Bizet's exquisitely beautiful music makes up for it all. To get an idea of what you're in for, open another tab/window to for a brief sound-clip of the famous tenor-baritone duet and 2 great video clips from this production.

Leïla ::: Ekaterina Siurina (soprano)
Zurka ::: Malcolm MacKenzie (baritone)
Nadir ::: Charles Castronovo (tenor)
Nourabad ::: José Gallisa (bass)
Karen Keltner/ San Diego Symphony Orchestra
Directed by Andrew Sinclair

See photos from this production at:

'Exotic' is the keyword for this opera, and exotic is what we get right off the bat with Zandra Rhodes' psychedelic neon blue and pick set and costume. It doesn't put you in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) or anywhere on planet earth that I can place, but then the actual locale of the story isn't of importance for this opera anyhow. The idea is to set it where you've never been before... and this set and costume sure does the trick (though I hope all of it is still intact since it sounded like something went crashing off stage-left half way through the first act).

The stage direction by Andrew Sinclair is mostly good though seems compromised by the Civic Theater's less than ideal acoustic (at least that's what I think is causing most of the singers to turn to face the audience when they are singing, even if they're supposed to be addressing the other character). I wish the two leading men aren't direct to show so much repulsion toward each other at first, since it then strains credibility a bit more (this opera's plot isn't strong to begin with) when Zurka later laments of how stressful it is for him to have to condemn his beloved friend to death. Also, the way Nadir first approaches Leïla for the first time gives the feeling that 'lust' is what is in his heart rather than 'love'. The chorus and ballet dancers are well choreographed and move around the stage well (I didn't realize that there would be so much dancing in this opera!). Ron Vodicka's clever lighting design also lit up the stage (and the auditorium) to great effects during the tumultuous scenes.

On the singing front, the chivalric King of the Pearl Fishers, Zurka, is well sung and acted by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie. His grainy voice took a bit of getting used to to me, but it got better and better as the show progressed. He is dramatically convincing as the dominant male without ever emoting, and his voice amazingly peaked right on time for his touching Act III solo, 'O Nadir, tendre ami,' and duet with Leïla. Perhaps the last portion of the duet could have been choreographed a bit better (it lost some steam toward the end), but on the whole he had a very successful opening night.

As Nadir, the opera's resident hunting hunk, is the young American tenor Charles Castronovo... A very hunky singer who also acts a bit too much like a tenor for my taste. I'm afraid he wasn't in the best of voice on Saturday night, but did manage to get by in the enchanting duet 'Au fond du temple sainte' (which, sadly, uses the well worn modified ending repeat of 'Oui, c'est elle, c'est la déesse' rather than the original 'Amitié sainte'). The voice is smaller and heavier than I expected, though it has a pleasant timbre and was well projected in Nadir's brilliant solo, 'Je crois entendre encore', which was definitely a highlight of the show. When he had to sing from off-stage (with Leïla) at the end of the opera, however, he was mostly inaudible even from my seat in the orchestra level.

The real star of the show for me was Ekaterina Siurina's ravishing Leïla, a pint-size siren with a voice to die for. It is a sweetly beautiful and well focused instrument that sounds mesmerizingly similar to a very well controlled English horn (the top notes did spread a bit, but were still quite secure). She arrived on the stage well warmed up and cast a spell on the audience with her gorgeous singing and dancing during the Act I 'Dans le ciel sans voile', displayed great attention to details both in her singing and acting, and floated some wonderful piano very becoming of beautiful young priestess. This is definitely a soprano to keep an eye on!

Basso José Gallisa rounds off the good cast as the high priest Nourabad. He doesn't have much to sing, but was skillful at making his imposing physique count whenever he was on the stage.

Maestro Karen Keltner and the San Diego Symphony orchestra set a brisk tempo that had the final curtain down by 9:40PM. Nothing was ever rushed, though. The reliable San Diego Opera Chorus under Dorothy Randall was its stellar self from the opening 'Sur la grève en feu' on and through out the show, both singing and acting convincingly as the pearl fishing villagers.

All in all, the opening night of The Pearl Fishers was a tremendous success that promises to get even better in subsequent performances. The only real 'downers' for me came from the few inconsiderate members of the audience who nearly drowned out whole passages of the beautiful tenor-baritone duet with endless coughing fits. A cougher behind me to one side then rubbed it in even more by not having unwrapped the cough drop s/he brought beforehand... and there was yet another gentleman who started humming the tenor line just as the duet was climaxing. Whoever you are, I hope you won't be repeating these antics at other performances!

Next performances of The Pearl Fishers at the San Diego Civic Theater: May 6, 19 (8PM), 11 (2PM)
Unless specified otherwise, the curtain rises at 7PM sharp, with the informative, fun, and free 30 minute-long pre-opera lecture by either Dr. Nicholas Reveles or Dr. Ron Shaheen from the UCSD Music Department given in the Orchestra Level 1 hr before show-time.

If you are in Southern California, you can also catch a radio broadcast from a performance in this run on KPBS radio (FM 89.5) at 19:00hr on Sunday May 18th.

Next season (2009) at the San Diego Opera:
Puccini's Tosca (Sylvie Valayre, Marcus Haddock), Massenet's Don Quixote (Ferrucio Furlanetto, Marina Domashenko), Verdi's Rigoletto (Lado Ataneli, Roberto Aronica, L'ubica Vargicová), Britten's Peter Grimes (Dean Griffey, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Rodney Gilfry), Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Patricia Racette).

My review of other performances at the San Diego Opera:
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (2007), Donizetti: Maria Stuarda (2008), Cavalleria Rusitcana/I Pagliacci (2008), Aida (2008)
A Few Words To Opera Newbies

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