A Stunner: The Pearl Fishers at Opera in the Heights

The setup: Virgin priestess Leïla (soprano Abigail Dueppen, in her Opera in the Heights debut), veiled and mysterious, has been brought to the shores of ancient Ceylon by the pearl divers of the village. She is to pray for their safe and profitable expedition. This being a French opera from the 2nd Empire, need it be added that Leila's been sneaking around, and the title "virgin" might be a bit premature?

The execution: Best friends Nadir (tenor Timothy Birt) and Zurga (baritone Brian Shircliffe) have both fallen in love with her, but their bromance is supreme, at least for a while. Leave it to Georges Bizet, whose first major opera this is -- a decade before his masterpiece Carmen -- to weave a most exotic musical spell that would make anyone, even a virgin priestess, break her vows and rush headlong into the thralls of passion.

The High Priest (bass Daymon Passmore) places Leïla upon a rock overlooking the rugged coast. "Sing," the villagers implore. "Sing, again." Dueppen does, with magnificent control and impeccable diction, soaring through Bizet's coloratura. Her luscious soprano, lithe frame, and piquant stage presence bespeak a major talent.

Birt and Shircliffe are passionate, too, and their famous showstopper duet "Au fond du temple saint," their ode to friendship, is finely phrased and downright chilling.

The opera, not a big success during Bizet's lifetime, doesn't have a dull moment. While librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré's story is fairly lame and full of coincidence, the opera flies by with constantly inventive melodies and great choral outbursts that are almost religiously ardent.

OH overlays this French love letter with a Bollywood treatment: gaudy chiffon swags in hot contrasting colors, temple ruins that look no more like ancient India than the original 1863 Parisian production, and two dance numbers choreographed by Dominic Walsh.

The verdict: The opera is a stunner, and maestro Linus Lerner and chorus master C. Vincent Fuller deserve much credit for making the utmost with minimal resources.

The "ruby" cast (Dueppen, Birt, Shircliffe) performs March 31 and April 2. The "emerald" cast (Ani Maldjian, Fabian Robles, and Yoonsang Lee) sings April 1 and 3. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303.

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