As the lights dimmed, someone jokingly said, “The world is your oyster,” and for the Toledo Opera Association’s Wednesday evening student opening of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, truer words were never spoken. The production is a “pearl of great price,” visually stunning, musically sonorous, and dramatically exotic.
Director Bernard Uzan has vividly transported the tropical world of mystical Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to the stage of the Valentine Theatre. A few grains of annoying sand, however, remain hidden within the gleaming jewel in its nacre shell.
The coastal paradise of a set sports an enormous glowering Buddha head and similarly menacing stone Muruganesque warriors. An ancient stone plaza leads to a gritty expanse of sandy beach running to the ocean’s edge. When the curtain rose, the audience murmured with pleasure.
The sand, however, clomps, when trodden upon too heavily. The slant of the beach is so steep, the front 10 feet (of a stage literally covered in singers) cannot be used for fear of the cast will trip and fall into the orchestra pit.
The costuming reveals a visual panoply for the eyes: yards of beautiful jacquard, silken sashes, head-dressed nabobs, turbaned villagers. The guards carry threatening, 10-foot high, spears.
Later, when turned on the captured lovers, wielding the oversize weapons becomes a comic scene out of a cartoon nightmare, at war with the dramatic intent.
Imported to add a multisensory element to the artscape, the Ballet Theatre of Toledo’s dance sextet is brilliant. Nigel Burgoine’s choreography, flowingly appropriate to the music, adds depth and dimension to an unfurling plot.
Sadly, the dancers are relegated to a small island of flat space at the side of the stage with a rock in the middle. Already cramped, they dance, ridiculously avoiding the obstacle which serves no purpose except to hide a character for two minutes much later in the action.
The projected images designed by Michael Baumgarten are simply exquisite: star-studded heavens, mist-enshrouded temples, breathtaking ocean views.
In the middle of crucial dramatic scenes, the images become so busy they completely draw the focus from the on-stage action. The first act moves between daylight and darkness so often that all sense of time is destroyed. Additionally, the images often depict the opposite of what the singers on stage are saying. Less would be more.
This is the crux of problem. The production is top notch, one of the best in years. Technical choices were made that create annoying little nits in the artistic fabric.
Nits aside, however, the music was divinely inspired; the breath of Brahma.
The Toledo Symphony, lead by John Baril in his conducting debut with the Toledo Opera, played with mesmerizing sensitivity, creating a perfectly balanced soundscape of aural beauty. Special mention should be made of harpist Nancy Lendrim’s solo work gracefully underpinning a number of arias.
The vocal triumvirate heading the cast was unstoppable. Perfectly matched vocally, the rival lovers baritone Luis Ledesma (Zurga) and tenor Yi Li (Nadir) formed quintessential dramatic foils.
Li’s second act sotto voce work in the upper tessitura was delicate and tender. Ledesma’s final act aria of remorse was richly executed with a craftsmanship filled with pathos.
Soprano Danielle Pastin (Leila) was jaw dropping: her musical sensitivity was mature and focused; her command of vocal inflection a tour de force of coloratura gymnastics. Every aria presented a delicately crafted jewel, executed with a taste which never allowed her virtuosity to outshine her dramatic characterization.
The Toledo Opera Chorus delivered probably the singular best performance in their history: their sound, color, diction, and interpretation of the music were all show stopping. Their role in the drama is so crucial, they become an equal player with the principals; their off-stage fishing songs were executed with a precision and verve that was astounding.
Kevin Byslma, chorus master and head of musical preparation, is to be congratulated.
The Pearl Fishers performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St. Tickets are $30-$80 and available from the Toledo Opera Box Office at 419-255-7464 or toledoopera.org.
A preconcert lecture open to all ticketholders will be held in the Grand Lobby one hour prior to curtain.
Contact Wayne F. Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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