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Eternal Triangle: Two guys, Zurga (Jason Detwiler, left) and Nadir (Adam Flowers), both love the same girl, Léïla (Sandra Rubalcava), in 'The Pearl Fishers.'

Operatic Treasure

Opera San José discovers musical treasures in Bizet's 'Pearl Fishers'

By Scott MacClelland

ALTHOUGH Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is overshadowed by the later Carmen, the earlier work makes a startling impression, especially when one considers that Bizet was just 24 when he wrote it. An excellent way to discovery its treasures is to attend Opera San José's just-launched production. Try not to be unsettled by the costumes, an odd synthesis of Sicilian and Turkish elements, or the sets, which suggest everything from sub-Saharan Africa to Buddhist Burma, even though the action is set in 19th-century Ceylon.

Ceylon, you may wonder anyway. In the first place, Bizet had no say, since he was handed the libretto along with the commission. In the second place, a wave of fascination with Oriental cultures--particularly between North Africa and India--had captured popular taste in France in the wake of Napoleon's imperial adventuring.

Meanwhile, Bizet came up with a big signal melody--a Wagnerian-style leitmotif that first blooms in the tenor/baritone duet of Act 1, "Au fond du temple saint" (arguably now the most popular opera duet of all). The tune represents pledged honor and faithfulness against all odds. Bizet demonstrates with uncommon adroitness how such a device continually pulls the underlying personal conflict back into focus.

Zurga is elected village king by his fellow fishermen. His boyhood friend Nadir emerges from the forest after a long absence, and (in the famous duet) the two swear fealty to one another.

However, even in that moment, a discordant element is heard when the subject comes up of a woman they both once loved. She is Léïla, her identify now concealed by a veil, introduced as a priestess, an emblem of purity and sacrifice needed to propitiate the fearful god Brahma. She swears to remain chaste although death would be her reward should she violate her oath.

Of course, she is the very woman both men love, and Nadir, throwing caution to the winds, pulls off a tryst with her on--would you believe?--her first night on duty. The high priest Nourabad observes and reports this violation to Zurga, who jealously and angrily demands death for both. But Zurga finds himself stuck between conflicting loyalties, and an amulet that Léïla gives him leads to his fateful decision. (No, I'm not going to tell you what it is.)

There are two casts, Sunday's including baritone Jason Detwiler (Zurga), tenor Adam Flowers (Nadir), soprano Sandra Rubalcava (Léïla) and Carlos Aguilar (Nourabad).

Detwiler, as is now well known, has all the right stuff, a finished technique, rich tone (featuring many colors), a fine sense of both musical and dramatic timing, and the facial expressions and body language to create a credible stage performance. As Zurga, his character must develop through a wide range of emotions. Flowers gave a secure and dependable performance, though the role calls for less character development, but struggled with the tenor aria "Je crois entendre encore," which demands the unique, light, lyrical technique only found in French opera. At this point in his career, Flowers has too much horsepower for that style of singing. Otherwise, he negotiated the role effectively and successfully.

Rubalcava came up with the requisite coloratura (reminiscent of Lakme's "Bell Song" in its bravura) and, once robbed of her priesthood, etched a vivid character, by turns supplicant and defiant. As befits the role of Nourabad, Aguilar was humorless, unyielding and authoritative.

Veteran Opera San José conductor David Rohrbaugh got a first-rate response from his smart little orchestra, effectively illuminating Bizet's economical and imaginative score and propelling the drama with excellent pace. The well-known tenor David Cox served this production as director, making the small stage seem large.

The Pearl Fishers runs through Feb. 22 at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $43-$63. (408.437.4450)

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From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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