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The Pearl Fishers has been called Bizet’s most beautiful opera. Lyric’s electric production is certainly one of the most beautiful visually as well. 

The continuously melodious score also represents a departure from more familiar opera, with just one principal female role, Leila (soprano Marina Rebeka) and with the strongest duets sung by the male roles, Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) and Nadir (tenor Matthew Silvestrelli, a home grown talent from Lyric’s own Ryan school).

This production of The Pearl Fishers is also striking for its primitivist scene designs, expressive lighting, and dance sequences that provide a fresh and contemporary take on the mythical setting of the story. This season’s move of the Joffrey Ballet into the role of Lyric’s in-house dance troupe provides an added creative dynamic for each production.

The choreography in The Pearl Fishers – and every Lyric show for that matter - probably deserves a separate review under the Dance sections. It is quite sensational, adding a flavor all its own, especially in the seamless combination with the performer’s dress. The animal dancers have a kind of Julie Taymor Lion King thing going, and this is courtesy of the break out talent of Sandra Rhodes.

Production and costume designs are by Rhodes. Done for the San Diego Opera Company and Michigan Opera Company, both are visual triumphs, and technical achievements. Rhodes must dress regal principal singers, an active corps of supernumerary fisherman and villagers, and a ballet troupe in fashion that advances the narrative, but will not come undone in energetic dance interludes. It’s the ultimate active ware. 

Bizet, known widely today for his later opera Carmen, was just 24 when The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1838. It is the story of a fishing village set in “ancient” Ceylon (today’s Sir Lanka), within a Hindu temple grounds as a center of much of the action.

As to theology, history, and culture, the opera has the story all wrong. At the time Europeans were entranced with the exotic Orient – but it was also terra incognita. (One Sri Lankan academe notes the opera originally was set in Mexico, the contemporary heart of global pearl production, until someone pointed out to Bizet that it was not in the Orient.) There was no Wikipedia back then.

Nevertheless, in the Hindu temple at Lyric we find Buddhist monks and an annual ritual in which a vestal virgin must abstain from romance overnight at the temple, or she will be sacrificed. (She gets a precious pearl if she is well behaved.) A high priest is also chief justice over all such executions. The God Brahma is also involved. 

The plot revolves around two young men, Zurga and Nadir, who previously competed for Leila, but now have pledged undying friendship, both forswearing her in the interest of preserving their friendship. 

Darndest thing! Leila is this year’s vestal candidate. And so we have a scene in which the tenor creeps into the temple to seduce her – with lots of “I must have you” tenor-ing, and even more “no you must go or you will be killed” soprano-ing.

Of course, the high priest Nourabad (bass Andrea Silvestrelli) catches them, and we’ll let you go to the opera to find out what happens. The Lyric calls the relationship between the guys a bromance, and the intensity of their fealty made me research whether Georges Bizet was gay (he was married with a daughter). Suffice it to say "gay" still means "happy" in the world of opera. 

The Lyric Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers comes highly recommended for what opera productions should be, and you have three more opportunities on December 4, 7 and 10.

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