Angela Allen

When the harnessed “flying” dancer floated dreamily behind the blue scrim to signal the pearl harvest in a far-off country, we were invited into a visually arresting show of “The Pearl Fishers,” if not into the most compelling story.

The corny threesome plot and sad-sack libretto was salvaged by the short-lived Georges Bizet’s beautiful melodies, stage director Kay Walker Castaldo’s originality, and Neil Peter Jampolis’ eerie saturated lighting in the January run of the Seattle Opera production.

Because of the theatrics, it was a breeze to fall into the illusion of this opera, first performed in 1863 and poorly received, at least critically. Now “The Pearl Fishers” is one of the most popular operatic pieces and has recently been performed by a handful of U.S. companies. Leave out of that group the Metropolitan Opera, which has not touched it since 1916.

Librettists Michel Carre (Gounod’s “Faust”) and the prolific but uninspired Eugene Cormon, whose libretto the then 25-year-old Bizet worked with, remarked that if they’d known of Bizet’s musical brilliance, they wouldn’t have dumped such  such trash on him.

Still, if the words about a veiled virgin goddess who comes to the exotic village to bring luck to the pearl harvest are silly, the singing and spicy harmonies were far from it.

Soprano Mark Dunleavy (Leila), a tiny woman with a huge stage presence, worked well with handsome tenor William Burden, who sang the role of Nadir, her forbidden lover. His friend, Zurga (baritone Christopher Feigum), and the newly chosen king, loved Leila in younger years. He is an apt and hunky complement to Dunleavy and Burden, a versatile actor and singer. The big sings, arias and duets were well balanced and convincing (despite the cornball words!).

I do, however, wish these guys kept their shirts on. Bare chests should be left to the fit male dancers, who by the way, performed Peggy Hickey’s ecstatic choreography that came off as raw and primitive, not prim and French.

The subtly and theatricality of French opera over Italian or German shines in this production. The tenor aria in the first act (“Je crois entendre encore”) as well as the love duet in Act Two grows quieter and quieter rather than climaxing into overkill. In “Comme Autrefois,” the oboe, harp and clarinets can be heard distinctively rather than overwhelmed by the orchestra.

With an intense fighting scene between Zurga and Nadir, the sugar level was mercifully lowered in this opera that can turn saccharine. Thanks, again, goes to the stage director.

It is a pity that Bizet died at 37 with only two significant operas to speak for his musical radiance. “The Pearl Fishers” was a hint that something bigger was in his head. That something, of course, was “Carmen,” the world’s most popular opera  — and Bizet’s last.

Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers

Mary Dunleavy (Leila), Christopher Feigum (Zurga), William Burden (Nadir), Patrick Carfizzi (Nourabad), Bobby Briscoe, Lisa Gillespie (principal dancers), Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Kay Walker Castaldo (stage director), Boyd Offstroff (set designer), Peggy Hickey (choreographer), Richard St. Clair (costume designer), Neil Peter Jampolis (lighting designer), Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup designer).

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