Mention Georges Bizet and one immediately thinks of “Carmen” – the “Toreador Song,” the “Flower Song,” and all the rest of the hits that make Bizet’s masterpiece one of the most popular works in the operatic firmament. There is, however, another number that deservedly ranks with these memorable tunes – “Au fond du temple saint” from “The Pearl Fishers.”
“The Pearl Fishers” was the 24-year-old Bizet’s debut into the cut-throat Parisian operatic scene of 1863. It had a modest success, running for 18 performances, but was greeted by a largely negative critical response. An exception was Hector Berlioz, who wrote that the opera contains “a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces filled with fire and rich coloring.” Modern opinion agrees with Berlioz – despite its muddled plot, the work is well worth staging for its gorgeous music – and not just the famous tenor-baritone duet.
Opera Carolina’s production emphasizes the strengths of the work. Despite an impressive set by Bernard Uzan and Michael Baumgarten backed by numerous projections – effective in themselves, but often changing for no apparent reason – the important thing here is the music. And it is in the capable hands of guest conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the cast and chorus. In the opening night’s performance the balance between stage and pit was always exemplary.
The chorus plays a larger role in this work than in many operas, and they sang lustily or delicately as required and were visually augmented by the expressive dancers, choreographed by Mark Diamond. The most important element of the musical effect, however, lies with the soloists.
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Local favorite John Fortson brought authority and rich tones to the brief role of the High Priest. As the priestess Leila, Janinah Burnett displayed a silvery tone and a real sense of vocal acting, especially in her cavatina anticipating the reunion with her lover, Nadir, and the duet with his rival, Zurga, as she pleads for Nadir’s life. As Nadir, the sweet-toned Chad Johnson’s voice was not overly large, but the beauty of timbre and control more than compensated. In the lush, but cruelly difficult, Act I aria, which calls for pianissimo high Bs, he resorted to falsetto but integrated them into the aria effectively.
The most interesting role of the three, however, is Zurga, the authority figure torn between friendship and jealousy. Mark Walters displayed a strong, rich tone and considerable acting ability. His anguished final aria and the duet with Leila were highlights.
And what about the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint”? In the hands of Johnson and Walters, supported by the Charlotte Symphony and conductor Joel-Hornak, it is just as beautiful as ever.