LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES: Yegishe Manucharyan and Robert Honeysucker sang well but weren’t helped by the staging.
The opening moments of Opera Boston’s new production of Les pêcheurs de perles (“The Pearl Fishers”), apparently this city’s first professional production of Bizet’s early opera, set me up to expect an extraordinary evening. And though little of what followed lived up to this initial promise, there were several musical high points.
The opera takes place in a barbaric community of pearl divers in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). During the short slow prelude (with timpani rolls suggesting a kind of underwater gurgling), which was ably led by Opera Boston music director Gil Rose, light flickered through mysterious darkness, and a diver appeared overhead and descended, head down, in slow motion, “swimming” in the direction of a large pearl shining on the stage floor. He picked it up and “floated” back up and out of view. “Flying by Foy,” according to the program — the company that put Mary Martin into the air as Peter Pan. Magical!
Scenic designer Susan Zeeman Rogers’s relatively bare set was more pedestrian (a few steps and a couple of bamboo trees, later a silken tent and some cartoonish Hindu-god cutouts against an empty cyclorama), even when the stage filled with Nancy Leary’s garishly colorful costumes and the perpetual motion of Prometheus Dance members bending and twirling in every variety of Asian cliché. And even simplicity can malfunction. In one climactic third-act scene on opening night, a gauzy curtain slipped out of place and covered the action. The singers moved around it. But someone in costume appeared on the side and kept trying to lasso the recalcitrant curtain, diverting attention from the helpless singers and causing much tittering. Opera Boston also used puppets (designed by Eric Ting) and shadow puppets and an eerie fire (that unfortunately morphed into an outdoor barbecue) to help enliven the stilted libretto.
The plot is a turgid melodrama about two friends, Zurga and Nadir (my favorite name in all of opera), who give up seeing the same woman, Leïla, in order to preserve their friendship, which unravels when she returns as a priestess. Composed by Bizet a dozen years before Carmen, the opera is best known for its gorgeous first-act tenor/baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint” (“In the depths of the holy temple”), in which the two friends, reunited when Zurga becomes village chief, reminisce about their old rivalry. The famous recording with Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill is on many lists of the greatest vocal recordings ever made.
Opera Boston’s Zurga was the venerable and venerated Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker, in a role ideal for his still magnificent voice and personal warmth. After Zurga’s election to chief, Honeysucker was all too suddenly crowned with a glittering tasseled turquoise turban that made him look (as a friend remarked) like a cross between a sultan and the mother of the bride. Even in the privacy of his tent, he never removed it, and at one point, the tassel flipped into his mouth while he was trying to sing. Nadir was the sweet-voiced Armenian tenor Yegishe Manucharyan, who began with worrisomely shaky high notes but managed to hit his stride in the famous duet. In his sublime dream vision of Leïla that closes act one (“Je crois encore entendre”), even singing on his back, he produced æthereal head tones. Overeager applause shattered the otherworldly mood before his last note floated away. It didn’t help that his acting was wooden, or that Leïla was dangling over him courtesy of Flying by Foy. Not magical.