I wouldn't ordinarily tell you this, but I got wood when I went to see Florida Grand Opera's new production of The Pearl Fishers. That usually doesn't happen at the opera. I do not like older women, pronounced jawlines, or hairy men. And although I've got a certain daddy-bear crush on Stewart Robertson, FGO's resident conductor, there are usually enough nonagenarians between him and me to prevent the development of any unsightly bulges.
It didn't matter at The Pearl Fishers (Les pecheurs de perles), now at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Though not the most famous opera to peacock its way across the stage at the Broward Center this month, it is undeniably the sexiest.
The other opera is Puccini's Tosca, now running in the space recently vacated by Pearl Fishers at the Carnival Center in a grand, dark production from The Baltimore Opera. If you see Pearl Fishers and Tosca back to back, a fascinating contrast emerges. Tosca, one of the great masterworks from arguably the greatest opera composer of all time, is studied, stately, and elegant; passionate in a refined way that befits its sober story and deeply romantic sets. The Pearl Fishers, written to order on a tight seven-week deadline by a 24-year-old Georges Bizet, is untidy and packed with moments of flashing brilliance, one after another.
Opera people talk a lot of shit about Pearl Fishers. They praise its two most famous arias, "Je crois entendre encore" and "Au fond du temple saint," and try to ignore the rest. I, troglodyte that I am, cannot honestly understand their beef. Maybe the opera really is musically sub-par, but it doesn't sound that way to me. I think the grumbling from the world's tastemakers has more to do with the opera's unfortunate libretto.
Librettists Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre famously declared that they would have come up with a better libretto if they'd known how talented Bizet really was. Too bad for them, and too bad for us, too — if they'd given it their all, maybe The Pearl Fishers would be performed more, and maybe those of us who do see it could spend more time listening to the music and less time chuckling over the opera's quaint conceits. It's set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and the librettists' portrayal of the people who live there is deeply un-PC. Setting opera in oriental locales was a big thing in 19th Century France — see Delibes' Lakme and Massenet's Le roi de Lahore — and it probably seemed like a grand idea at the time, with exoticism-starved masses yearning for glimpses of strange, far-off places. Having limited knowledge of such places themselves, the librettists who treated these subjects tended to turn out cartoons instead of characters, broad stereotypes that had nothing to do with reality. The Pearl Fishers may be the worst offender. In the Ceylon of the story, the characters are extremely superstitious, and they respond to the caprices of their own emotions with a dumb, brutal quickness that must have made 19th Century Europeans feel very good about their super-sophisticated selves. It doesn't work anymore.
But the impact of The Pearl Fishers' insensitivity is greatly lessened by the treatment it receives here — especially its sets, costumes, and overall aesthetic, which come courtesy of punk fashion goddess Zandra Rhodes. As the set and costume designer of the show, Rhodes understands that The Pearl Fishers is no anthropological exercise; she has turned Ceylon into an ahistoric wonderland of sensuality — picture Willie Wonka's chocolate factory invaded by a legion of dancing, tripping Grateful Dead fans, and you get the idea. Together, her sets and costumes create the impression of some kind of Day-Glo heaven, full of ballet dancers' tanned and rippling torsos and the soft, quivering navels of coyly veiled ingénues. The combination of magnificent flesh and candy-colored pageantry makes you want to sit near the front, in the hopes that a drop or two of a dancer's peppermint-flavored sweat will land on your tongue.
While you sit there, mouth agape, you will likely fall in love with young Bizet's vision. The music, all of it, is full of the kind of idealized and exquisite romance that could only come from a 24-year-old composer with big ears and a bigger heart. With every line, it seems as though Bizet couldn't cram enough emotion into his music, and FGO's singers seem to be on the same page. They're all well over 24, but they don't sound that way.
The story they enact involves two men with big crushes on the same veiled, virginal priestess, who's got to remain pure until Ceylon's fishermen complete an especially odious pearl hunt. One of the men, Nadir, just can't wait, and he and the priestess have their tryst interrupted by a big, mean bass. That bass is Turkish singer Burak Bilgili, and his face is one of the most remarkable things I've seen on any SoFla stage this year. Oozing menace from his first second onstage, his pinched and grumpy countenance looks, I swear to God, exactly like a puckered sphincter. It's like he's waited all his life to look so pissed off. He sings well, too.
But most of the evening's mind-blowing vocalizing comes from tenor William Burden and soprano Maureen O'Flynn. Burden, who plays Nadir, has a lovely, sweet timbre that belies a powerful belt he can call on as needed. Flynn, who plays the priestess Leila, is fresh and supple; she sounds far younger than she is, especially during her tastefully deployed flights of coloratura. O'Flynn, Burden, and baritone Lucas Meachem capitalize on the innocent sexiness of Rhodes' production, and their singing is deeply sympathetic to the idealized, hormonal emotions of their composer. If the story is silly and the songs are sappy, they sell them to you anyway, and make you believe.