Reviewed by James Karas
Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is still largely ignored but leave it to Opera Hamilton to make some redress by producing this tuneful and thoroughly enjoyable work.
The production directed by Brian Deedrick and conducted by Peter Oleskevich features some fine singing with very good playing by the Opera Hamilton Orchestra. The small Irving Zucker Auditorium provides an intimate venue and does away with any possible problems of singers with small voices.
The Pearl Fishers has some exotic elements. We are on a desolate seashore in Ceylon with a ruined Hindu temple in the background sometime in the past. We have a love triangle involving a virgin priestess and two friends who fell in love with her but renounced her for the sake of friendship.
Zurga (Brett Polegato) is elected King of the pearl fishers. His friend Nadir (Edgar Ernesto Ramirez) arrives on the seashore and the two renew their friendship and recall their pledge to forsake Leila (Virginia Hatfield), a beautiful priestess. She arrives just then accompanied by the High Priest Nourabad (Stephen Hegedus) to practice her craft of praying for the safety of the fishers.
The singing by the principals and the Opera Hamilton Chorus ranges from the good to the exceptional. Baritone Polegato leads the cast as king of the fishers who is wracked by jealousy and the call of friendship. Bizet gives him some dramatic singing and acting as well as some mellow scenes and he does superb work in both. He has good stage presence and gets high marks for his Zurga.
Ramirez has a light and pleasant tenor voice and he was at his best in his mid-range. Although he did soar to his high-notes, there were times when he appeared to be straining to reach them.
Priestess Leila gets a huge buildup before she appears. The two friends sing her praises in the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” and describe her as a goddess. Our imagination may go into overdrive and we know that no one can reach those heights and Hatfield does not. But she has a lovely voice, full of lyrical sweetness and beauty.
Bass baritone Stephen Hegedus makes a solid Nourabad. Bizet did not stint on the chorus at all, in fact, some of the most melodious music is written for them and the Hamilton Opera group takes full advantage of it and does a good job after a rather sloppy start.
The production is done on a single set by Designer Nick Blais. There are three columns with a raised stage on one side. Lighting is used for the back of the stage, ranging from turquoise to rad to various shades of blue. The Hindu Temple consists of a few candles between two of the columns. In other words, the design calls for a minimal number of props and a Spartan stage. No doubt, the concept is driven as much by economy as by artistic imagination.
Stage Director Deedrick shunts the Chorus of fishers on and off the stage and allows the principal singers to do what they do best – sing – rather than go for excessive theatrics.
The costumes consist of non-descript turbans on the head and beige garments. They all look like exotic Hindu fishers form Ceylon! Well, we have no idea they are supposed to look like but we will take them on faith. The principals are costumed a bit differently and Leila wears a sari and veil. She is bedecked with leis when she first appears and it is something that she does not need.
All of that is run-of-the-mill and does not deserve too much comment but the wigs worn by some of the men, especially Ramirez, cannot go unnoticed. What were they thinking of? They would look ridiculous in an operetta. Just ignore them, I suppose.
The chance to see an infrequently produced opera that is well-sung, in an intimate theatre, with a good orchestra, deserves a solid round of applause.
The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet opened on March 9 and will be performed four times until March 16, 2013 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, 190 King William St. Hamilton, Ontario