- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

What do you get when you cross an exotic 19th-century French opera with London’s Carnaby Street circa 1968? The Washington National Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”) at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, that’s what.

British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes’ wildly colorful sets and costumes improbably link the opera’s setting in colonial-era Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with the eye-popping Day-Glo hues and impulsive sexuality of 20th-century hippiedom. The whole concept seems nuts for a moment, but everything works, and the magic happens.

“The Pearl Fishers” is not a first-tier opera or even first-tier Bizet. It’s hampered by two-dimensional characters and flimsy dramatic development. Over the years, it has won favor largely for its stirring Act I duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” which provides a kind of leitmotif for the rest of the opera. The WNO’s production, though, succeeds splendidly by kicking things up a notch.

By illuminating the stage with flashy yellows and reds and perking up the production’s buff dancers and talented soloists with colorful and scanty costuming, Miss Rhodes provides the sexual heat the libretto lacks. What a welcome change all this pulsating color and raging libido is in an opera world gone mad for post-postmodern grays.

Normally, we don’t like it when a director or designer dominates an opera production, but Ms. Rhodes’ concept transforms what’s usually a moderately enjoyable evening into an exciting musical-theater event. It also seemed to inspire the singers to give it their very best, spicing things up even more.

“The Pearl Fishers” unfolds in a Ceylonese fishing village where two old friends, Zurga, the recently elected village king, and the hunter Nadir, patch up a long-standing quarrel over a mysterious, attractive woman they both once desired and still do. Unfortunately, that same woman, the virginal Leila, is brought in by the high priest, Nourabad, as the veiled maiden whose prayers will protect the fleet. Nadir discovers her identity, and serious problems ensue.

Tenor Charles Castronovo was brilliant as Nadir. His lyric voice possesses surprisingly great power and accuracy, bolstered by a piercing clarity - perfect for the passionate arias Bizet gives to his character. As Leila, soprano Norah Amsellem unveiled a marvelously supple instrument, effortlessly transiting from her mezzo notes to lovely, effortless trills and ornamentation in the higher range.

Rising baritone Trevor Scheunemann sang a clear and convincing Zurga. His well-supported voice added just the right ballast to the ensembles. As the menacing Nourabad, bass Denis Sedov added a chilling dose of sinister authority.

Opening night was a little wobbly, with the chorus and orchestra, under the baton of Giuseppe Grazioli, not always in complete communion, particularly when the chorus was offstage. But the splendid principal singers carried the show forward to a magnificently inspired finale.


WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: George Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”)

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Sept. 22 and 25, Oct. 1 and 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 28 at 2 p.m.; Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: $25 to $300. Call the box office at 202/295-2400 or 800/876-7972; or visit www.dc-opera.org.


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