If you want to experience a true star-is-born moment, live on stage, then go see Houston Grand Opera's completely satisfying production of George Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (1863), where you will discover baritone Alexander Birch Elliott as tribal chief Zurga on the seacoast of ancient Ceylon. He's the real deal.
On the cusp of fame, this young artist made a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera this very season in the same role, stepping in, as in Houston, for indisposed international baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. When we heard of the HGO cast change we were sorely disappointed, for Kwiecien is one of opera's great voices and personalities. (Never miss the opportunity to hear him.) But he, like phenom tenor Jonas Kaufmann, is predictably unreliable. You never know if these divos will show up.
Well, fear not, for Elliott banished all thoughts of the famed Polish baritone. Just striding on stage he was something special. He has authority built in. With a magnetic expansive presence and deep clarion voice that amply filled the Wortham, this singer is going places. He's got that look, that sound, and that certain aura. Performing throughout the United States in Omaha, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Tanglewood, Santa Barbara, Portland – all the standard opera house and concert venues for any burgeoning singer – his Met debut, as well as HGO's, should dropkick his career into overdrive if the opera gods are favorable. Or, just follow Kwiecie? around and when he cancels, step in. Elliott's the one to watch in the future.
If it's difficult for a young singer to make it, think of opera composers. Bizet spent his entire young life struggling for stage success. When he died (age 36, in 1875) during the run of Carmen at the famed Opera-Comique, he had no inkling that his final work – boorishly panned by the Parisian critics as immoral, a lack of melody, full of vice, and dull – would immediately eclipse every other opera of its era and enter the pantheon as one of the most beloved works, “the perfect opera.”
Bizet's earlier work, The Pearl Fishers, suffered the same rabid criticism, and after 18 performances at the Théâtre Lyrique was never heard again until decades later when tinkering and major revision had set in. Once Carmen's immense popularity blew open the doors, Bizet's early work was exhumed. Bizet's original manuscript had disappeared and only a piano score remained until his personal conducting score was discovered in, where else, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in the 1990s. Why nobody ever bothered to look there in the first place is a mystery worthy of Inspector Clouseau.
Dramatically and musically, Pearl Fishers is no Carmen, to be sure, but it's gorgeously tuneful and diaphanously scored. How can any opera miss with that quintessential tenor/baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint” (Deep in the sacred temple), a concert favorite and the opera's most famous tune. Only Verdi's best-buddy tenor/baritone duet "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" (God, who kindles love and hope) from Don Carlo (1867) is comparable.
Each of the three main characters gets an aria and a duet with each of the others, strictly following French opera precedent in the Second Empire. Nadir's Act I aria, "Je crois entendre encore" (I think I still hear...her voice), as he dreams of lost love Le?la (soprano Andrea Carroll), is written in lilting barcarole rhythm, like some haunting lullaby. Scored for flutes and harp, the song drifts by in a dream. In the forbidden lovers' duet, “Dieu puissant, le voilà” (Mighty God, here he is...), after a quick striptease where Nadir unwraps Le?la's sari, the two declare their love in some of Bizet's most ardent music. Throughout, the choral writing is sublime, especially the two hymns to Brahma, “O Dieu Brahma” and “Brahma! divin Brahma!” that close the first and second acts. An admiring tip of the hat to chorus master Richard Bado. This is divinely inspired music, and why the French audiences at the time didn't appreciate its radiance is another mystery.
Elliott is paired with two exemplary singers, renowned bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee (a recurring favorite at HGO) and young Andrea Carroll, an HGO Studio alum whose ethereal soprano has graced West Side Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Carousel, and the Ring cycle. The role of Le?la fits her like a...well, a well-draped sari. A paean to French coloratura, Bizet imbues her with runs and filigree that won't be heard unto 20 years later in Delibes' Lakme (1882). The character has no depth, but her music is exceptionally rich and fragrant. She sounds more profound than the libretto lets on. Her “Comme autrefois” (As before...) is a haunting precursor to Michaela in Carmen, and when she's commanded to banish the evil sea spirits by singing, afterward there's not one little devil anywhere near the opera house. And, of course, Brownlee, as Nadir, has no peer with this type of lyric tenor hero, where clarity and beauty of tone speaks pages. Bass-baritone Federico De Michelis is suitably oily as high priest Nourabad, sweeping the stage in his brightly-hued robes while proclaiming Brahma's vengeance.
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The production, from San Diego Opera (2004), is designed by celebrated British New Wave fashionista Zandra Rhodes, who overlays old Ceylon with picturebook DayGlo colors and cutout sets. Everything's very pop art – vibrant, clean, uncluttered. It's retro exoticism, with orange saris, pink trousers, and fuchsia palm trees emblazoned in Keith Haring graffiti. This Ceylon is a whole other world.
Making his HGO debut, as well as his opera conducting debut, maestro Roderick Cox brings swelling emotionalism to Bizet. The music wafts by, perfumed, deeply thought out, expressive. A recent winner of the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox is heartily welcomed to return to HGO any time he wants. We look forward to it.
Bizet considered Pearl Fishers a flop. In his abbreviated career, he never had a chance to realize he had written another hit. In its premiere production of Bizet's gem-like romance, HGO has added luster to this opera's deserved longevity. It's only taken 155 years.
The Pearl Fishers continues through February 8. 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in English with projected English translation. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$270.