Monday, July 04, 2005
The Pearl Fishers
Certain music that is beautiful and unchallenging goes well with the whole process of morning and waking up slowly. First on my list would be any of the dozens of Haydn string quartets. Most opera is too heavy for that time of day, but there are exceptions, such as Klemperer's all-star version of "The Magic Flute" (Gedda, Janowitz, Berry, Popp) with all the dumb dialogue taken out. Another recording I've been playing for years is Bizet's 1863 opera, "The Pearl Fishers."
I'd never bothered reading the libretto so I was clueless what anybody was singing about, and according to conventional opinion, it didn't matter. There are two Top 10 pieces of music in the score, the baritone-tenor duet that is only rivaled by Verdi in "Don Carlo" and a soft, tender tenor aria at the end of Act I that is unlike anything else in opera. Since the early-to-die Bizet really was one of the Gifted Ones, the rest of the score is also interesting and has great charm.
This was the first time for "The Pearl Fishers" at the San Francisco Opera, in a production borrowed from the San Diego Opera, with costumes and sets designed by the infamous British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who as you can see is not afraid of color.
After the monochromatic production of "Queen of Spades" last week, this psychedelic version of Orientalia was a complete tonic. The libretto, set in a 19th-century French fantasy of Ceylon, was pretty silly but we've all seen sillier (Massenet's "Herodiade" anyone?). What was so refreshing about the staging in this production, however, is that they resisted camping it up and played the story straight. It worked.
Even the ballet, which in operas are reliably dreadful, wasn't as bad as usual. The chorus was wonderful and not asked to do too many ridiculous things, and the principal singers were all fine, with one exception, the young tenor Charles Castronovo, who was simply awesome. Not only did he sing the entire opera with his shirt off, winning the Operatic Hunky Hairy Chest Award for the season, but his voice was perfect for this music: youthful, sweet and ardent.
My only complaint with the staging was the telescoping of Acts I and II of the three-act opera without an intermission.
Ninety minutes is too long to go without a break, particularly with this music. It's not the punishing Wagner after all. Not only were the standees getting a little tired and cranky but the Sunday matinee audience is predominantly elderly women who often need to take a pee. Cut them some slack.
There are two more performances of "The Pearl Fishers" this week, but they're sold out. Try standing room or one of the scalpers on the front steps if you're interested.