Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Santa Fe Opera Part II

by Megan Meister

The interior of the Santa Fe Opera House just before a performance of Bizet’s THE PEARL FISHERS.

Last night didn’t start off too well.

I had met one of my artist manager colleagues for an early dinner before the opera (his client, Eric Cutler was the tenor in the performance of PEARL FISHERS we were both going to hear) and after we had finished eating and said “See you later” we headed to our separate cars.

When I got into mine, it wouldn’t start.

I tried again, and once again heard this whirring sound but the engine wouldn’t “turn over.”

With visions of missing a performance for the first time in my life, I jumped out of the car and flagged my friend down before he drove off.  He kindly waited while I tried my car one more time, and then I simply gave up and abandoned the car in the restaurant parking lot and hitched a ride with my colleague!

I decided I would wait and worry about how I would get home until after the performance.

Was I glad I did!

The performance of PEARL FISHERS was surprisingly enjoyable.

I say “surprisingly” because it is not one of my favorite operas, in spite of some extraordinarily beautiful music.  If Bizet had written nothing else in his life but the first act tenor/baritone duet he would still be famous today.  There are other wonderful pages in the score, but it is saddled with a clunky, static libretto in which nothing much happens and there are three “cardboard” protagonists in a shallow love triangle that isn’t compelling in the least.

To his credit, British stage director Lee Blakely (who very early in his career assisted David McVicar in the staging of a memorable MANON in Dallas) found motivation for a lot of the action that isn’t really in the libretto.  Some of it may not have made logical sense, but somehow it all made theatrical sense.

The set was a “stage within a stage” surrounded by an enormous gilded picture frame which allowed the audience to observe the nineteenth century clichés from a twenty-first century perspective, and when in the height of the “action” (and I use that term loosely) it fell forward a bit, it created a momentary theatrical coup that may have been obvious and predictable, but was very effective nonetheless.

The singers all had their strengths and weaknesses (for which I both commend and blame the composer) but there were several really exquisite moments. Eric Cutler’s offstage serenade accompanied only by a harp) and Nicole Cabell’s beautifully nuanced singing of the other “hit tune” in the opera, Leila’s aria “Comme autre fois” were among the evening’s highlights.

One of the technical problems with the vocal writing is that Bizet makes demands on his singers that require contrasting vocal attributes, and so it is virtually impossible to find anyone who can encompass all the extremes each role requires.

The real star of the show however was French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who conducted every note of the score as if it were a work of genius.

He inspired the orchestra and chorus (who have a lot to sing in this opera) as well as the four soloists to perform with style and great subtlety, which made this flawed rarity, seem a much better opera than it really is.

I don’t want any of you to feel that I have said all this because I simply don’t like French opera.  On the contrary, I really love a lot of this repertoire and corner me sometime and I’ll be happy to share with you a list of some of my favorites.

In case any of you were worried, I did get home safe and sound last night after the performance (although quite a bit later than I would have liked, being, as it were, at the mercy of my “chauffeur”) and now I have to figure out how to get back to the restaurant parking lot and have the car rental company trade out my car.

Maybe it is because I am superstitious, (most theater people are) but I should point out that yesterday WAS the 13th…

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