While watching opening night of Seattle Opera’s otherwise lovely The Pearl Fishers, I kept thinking of a quote from the brilliant Quebecois director Robert Lepage, whose double-bill staging of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung comes to the opera here in February. Lepage talks to writer Thomas May in next month’s Seattle Met about, among other things, creating a world on stage in which operatic expression can believably exist. “The voice is all about screaming—beautiful, controlled screaming though it is,” Lepage says, “and what they scream about has to deserve to be screamed.” That’s the problem with this production: Nothing deserves to be screamed—beautiful, controlled screaming though it is.
The plot hasn’t the thundering zing of, say, The Ring (what does?) but its people aren’t without their passions. Zurga (Christopher Feigum), unanimously appointed king, welcomes to his superstitious coastal village the return of his childhood buddy Nadir (William Burden) and, soon after, the arrival of a veiled foreigner who’s been selected to subdue stormy weather through the power of her celibate prayers. You’re only asking for trouble when the fate of your civilization depends on someone’s chastity. Alas, the veiled woman is eventually revealed to be Leila (Mary Dunleavy), a beauty who in the past almost destroyed Zurga’s friendship with Nadir when the two men competed for her affections. They each swore to the other to forget her. But you know how men are.
Bizet’s music has an even more seductive plushness than in his beloved Carmen—you want to lie back into it and stretch like a happy cat. That lulling beauty may be what’s distracted director Kay Walker Castaldo from generating palpable pagan heat.
Bizet and his librettists have no doubt thrown some challenges her way; at least three arias deal with characters in various stages of sleepiness. Yet they’ve also handed her raging jealousies, storms, and village rituals, potential sources of drama that under Castaldo’s watch go limp and, at one point, don’t even make sense (choreographer Peggy Hickey’s dancers look great half-nude but their moves seem to belong to a different tribe: the one romping through Central Park on acid in Hair).
And Castaldo uses empty distances to convey longing. When Nadir and Leila recognize one another but (temporarily, of course) hold back their feelings, the director simply keeps them apart on stage together until, well, until she doesn’t. There is no burning physical manifestation of that time in between, when the blocking should make clear that if these two people don’t touch they’ll die and, conversely, that if they do touch they’ll die.
There aren’t, actually, burning physical manifestations anywhere. By Act III, when Zurga overreacts to the tryst (you know how men are) then sentences the pair to death and wonders, “What mad, blind fury possessed me?”, you have every right to ask, “What mad, blind fury?" (Feigum must, at the very least, be upset about his wig, the flowing locks of which add about 15 years to his appearance).
But there are those Bizet melodies and the leads do, in fact, lie back into them like happy cats. Feigum lacks brio but possesses a strong baritone; tenor Burden and, especially, soprano Dunleavy sound like rippling cream. Better, the three blend into something sweeter—what’s missing in the staging is often in the singing: Dunleavy and Burden drip with romantic ache when their voices combine, and Feigum and Burden’s notes together express a true kinship.
Castaldo (with a considerable assist from set designer Boyd Ostroff and Neil Peter Jampolis’ glistening lights) does bring off one ravishing image to match the stupendous swell of conductor Gerard Schwarz and the orchestra: The curtain first rises on the three lovers joined in a circle that slowly parts while, behind them, a villager dives to the bottom of the sea to retrieve a large, shining pearl—a dreamlike effect achieved by carefully “flying” a performer down from the proscenium arch to the stage floor and up again.
It’s a disappointment that the rest of this production hasn’t managed to plumb the depths and come back with a perfect jewel, too.