Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s luminous “The Pearl Fishers” resonates with modern imagination.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City presented Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” (Les pêcheurs de perles) with passionate performances, athletic dancing and dazzling visual display in Saturday’s opening night performance.

Set in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) in an unspecified time period, it is of a world straddling ancient traditions and modern influences, demonstrated here with the presence of what appeared to be muskets, which would have been introduced to the region sometime during the 16th century.

Of course, Bizet never traveled to South Asia and it is unlikely that his collaborators had, either, when the opera premiered in Paris in 1863. But the tales from the East influenced librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, as the colors, scents, sounds, and histories of faraway cultures exploded in the imagination of Europeans during the 1800s.

Andrew Sinclair, who co-created this work for San Diego Opera in 2004, directed a strong cast for this Kauffman Theatre performance. Despite some unnecessary chorus/supernumerary hustle and bustle, it was clearly staged, making the most of a flimsy plot.

It’s your typical four-voiced cast, with the tenor and baritone battling it out for the soprano, while the bass portends pompously about.  Sinclair, though, gives us a touch more nuance. Our baritone, Zurga, is chosen to lead the pearl divers. He and our tenor, Nadir, have a frayed friendship; Nadir has secretly broken their pact to abstain from the girl they both love; that girl, Leila, is the chaste priestess chosen to protect the pearl divers. Add the bass, Nourabad, and, since none of the men can control themselves, that’s the makings of a heck of a time.

John Moore, a certified barihunk, was a commanding Zurga, robustly gestural. His tormented performance escalated authentically from masculine insecurity to rage to remorse. Zurga’s weakness, his disgust in himself, generates violence against Leila in a truly frightening scene. Even his act of redemption is a desperate and violent act.

Sean Panikkar, as Nadir, lent an incredible voice to a more steady emotional range, mostly self-assured, sometimes defiant, sometimes plaintive. His wooing could use more nuance, as it seemed too scripted in convincing Leila to break her vow.

The famous duet between Zurga and Nadir created a convincing balance of nostalgic fellowship and present day tensions.

Maeve Högland was incandescent as the proud and pure Leila. Apparently she was ill leading up to the performance, but you would never have known, with clear-voiced delivery and relative ease to her vocal acrobatics. Her Leila was smart and true and fierce, defending herself, defending her love, and demonstrating a tenacity and nobility that the male characters lacked.

Bass Christian Zaremba, despite the relatively smaller role, strode importantly around the stage as the priest with a smarmy self-interest.

Antony Walker conducted the Kansas City Symphony. The orchestra fit fairly well with the voices, with especially strong and prominent performances from flute, harp and cello. The brass players were, at times, nearly perilous in their tuning, however.

The chorus, too, gave a strong performance, and together the forces where truly terrifying at the end of Act II.

This opera, as most French operas, featured a fair amount of dance and it was gratifying to see it so well integrated to the scenes, choreographed by John Malashock for the original production and recreated here. A team of eight dancers (four man, four women) gave a thrilling, acrobatic performance that seemed to bear some elements of traditional South Asian dance styles, especially a portion for trio, wearing fantastically ornate animal head masks, in a ritualistic dance set against the chorus’ high spirited bloodlust.

These masks were created by Zandra Rhodes and I wished the program, which always runs statements by the director and conductor, had included more information about the choreography as well as the fantasy-like scenic and costume designs.

Her design was a heady fluorescent mix of textures, patterns and fabrics, hand-painted details and glittered headdresses, which seemed to offer more specificity than our generic Western-skewed vocabulary of “exotic” or “ethnic,” but what came from Bali or regions of India or even the culture in question, we were not informed. Though she did visit Sri Lanka in her research, she drew from a wide range of South Asian influences and her own imagination, creating folk-art motifs of palm leaves, fish and sea shells, as well as a wiggly gesture in the sea and sky (and images of female bodies) which offered an overt suggestion of Henri Matisse’s bright colors and strong lines.

Ron Wodicka designed the lighting, creating the many moods of the sun and sea, and David Zimmerman created complementary wig and makeup design.

Perhaps it’s satisfying enough to look only at the pretty colors and listen to the beautiful music, but then again, why keep producing new operas if we can’t consider the time they are in now? Despite the plot conventions and operatic stereotypes, these themes play out with renewed sensitivity on each retelling.

The plot hinges on the villagers’ blind obedience and fervor for religious violence and this presentation brought forth, perhaps, a more unhappy resonance than originally intended, given the recent attacks in Sri Lanka. It is a depressing recognition that too often violence and religion walk together. We in Kansas City are reminded that we are not removed from it, having experienced religious violence, too, as have communities world-wide.

It reminds us, too, the critical importance of vetting of our elected leaders, who are responsible for our communities’ well being and position in the world. With a volatile temper, controlled by his impulses, mired in the past, Zurga had no advantage in leading his people and, eventually, destroyed everything he swore to protect.

“The Pearl Fishers” is often dismissed as a silly opera, a stopped-time piece, an artistic stepping-stone to Bizet’s popular “Carmen,” but with this production, in this time and in this place, it came into the 21stcentury with vibrant force.

Reviewed Saturday April 27, 2019. Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “The Pearly Fishers” May 1 and 3 7:30 p.m. and May 5 2 p.m. at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

  1. Marc J. says:

    Calling a singer a certified barihunk in 2019 seems a little ridiculous. Would you call a soprano something similar? Unlikely. Could you imagine if you said Maeve was a certified hottie??? Saying Maeve demonstrates tenacity that the male characters lacked is not because of the singers. It’s what Bizet wrote.

      1. Libby Hanssen says:

        Thank you for your comment! I agree, we need to be careful and respectful of the language we use about the artists, especially in a genre already fraught with sexism. My apologies to Mr. Moore.

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