The one that got away

The Pearl Fishers at the Schuster

By Eric Street

Photo: Soprano Chloe Moore will perform as Leila

Has an unsolvable love triangle ever produced such unforgettably ravishing music? Come to the Schuster Center and hear for yourself when the Dayton Opera, Ballet and Philharmonic present Georges Bizet’s fragrantly exotic The Pearl Fishers. Sung in French with English surtitles, this Signature Event is the finale of the Dayton Opera 2014-15 season.

Boasting one of the most hauntingly beautiful duets ever composed, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) is a youthful work of a composer best known for his final opera, Carmen. Composed when Bizet was only 25 years old, The Pearl Fishers reveals his rich gifts for melody and atmosphere, gifts that continued to blossom until his untimely death at 36 during Carmen’s initial 18-performance run.

“The Pearl Fishers is a hidden gem of the opera world,” conductor Neal Gittleman explains. “The story may strain credibility at times, but the music is glorious throughout. And we have a wonderful cast and great dancing from Dayton Ballet.”

The Pearl Fishers, set in faraway, long ago Ceylon, is a shining example of the 19th century taste for orientalism, which depicts the Orient as exotic, colorful and sensual. Madame Butterfly and Lakme count among the best-known operas in this category.

The most recognizable part of The Pearl Fishers is the famous tenor-baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint.” Although most music lovers know the duet, the number is even more satisfying in the full emotional context of the complete opera. It comes as the pearl fishers Zurga and Nadir reminisce about a veiled priestess they once glimpsed in another city, a young woman whose stunning beauty nearly tore their friendship apart. Now they declare their undying friendship for each other.

Could their timing be worse? As they vow their friendship, a boat bearing a mysterious veiled priestess arrives. The famous duet foreshadows the coming conflict as the two childhood friends realize they are still in love with the same beautiful woman, Leila. To further complicate matters in Norma-esque fashion, newly-arrived Leila is a priestess of Brahma, sworn to lifelong celibacy.

Unsolvable? Don’t worry. The story of forbidden love and Bizet’s music, enriched by chorus and dance, make The Pearl Fishers an irresistible evening at the opera.

Artistic Director Thomas Bankston has assembled a promising cast to bring Bizet’s youthful inspiration to vivid life on the Schuster Center stage. Soprano Chloe Moore makes her Dayton Opera debut as Leila, a priestess of Brahma sworn to chastity but loved by two longtime friends.

Tenor Victor Ryan Robertson also makes his Dayton Opera debut as Nadir, a former fisherman who has returned to his boyhood village. He is one of the two friends hopelessly in love with the captivating but seemingly unattainable Leila.

The third corner of the love triangle is sung by Baritone Matthew Worth, who returns to Dayton Opera after singing Danilo in The Merry Widow. Worth portrays Zurga, the village chief and a pearl fisher who also loves Leila.

Rounding out this talented cast is bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw, who returns for his 15th production with Dayton Opera. Shaw sings Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma who reminds Leila of her vow of chastity.

Joining the Dayton Opera for the first time to stage direct this charming work is Fenlon Lamb. Lamb is currently the director of opera and vocal programming at Bar Harbor Music Festival.

While The Pearl Fishers has only four principal roles, the stage will be filled as Dayton Opera Chorus members add their voices to the unfolding story. Jeffrey Powell directs 40 Dayton Opera Chorus singers, who portray fishermen, virgins, priests and priestesses of Brahma.

Also on hand to enliven the exotic island setting of The Pearl Fishers will be The Dayton Ballet’s full company of 19 dancers. They will bring their talent and energy to the production, dancing to choreography by Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke.

The Dayton Philharmonic will perform Bizet’s sumptuous score under the skilled baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman.

About the composer

The career of Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) is one of great promise cut short. Despite prodigious talent, he never achieved critical success until his death several months before his 37th birthday. A heavy smoker like Puccini, Bizet was afflicted by chronic, painful throat abscesses. Ironically, his star seemed to rise immediately after he died, and his Carmen, initially savaged by the critics, suddenly began its dizzying climb to become one of the most popular operas ever composed.

Despite favorable public reception, press reactions to The Pearl Fishers were generally hostile, though other composers, notably Berlioz, found much merit in the music. The Pearl Fishers has achieved its greatest acclaim since 1950, and worldwide productions of this once rare opera have become increasingly common. Part of this surge stems from the unflagging popularity of its best-known number, the famous duet.

The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents The Pearl Fishers Friday, April 17 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 19 at 3 p.m. in the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit daytonperformingarts.org or call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630. Senior and student discounts are available.

Reach DCP freelance writer Eric Street at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Eric Street
Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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