Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) had never been performed by the Santa Fe Opera until this season. Since its premiere in 1863 it has hung around the outskirts of the standard operatic repertory. It has only received four performances by the Metropolitan Opera, the last in 1916 with Enrico Caruso heading the cast.

The reasons for its neglect are a two dimensional libretto and an uneven score; the concluding third act is weak. The decision to have a single intermission after the second act offered a good opportunity to leave early and miss the Wagnerian traffic jams that occur after every show when more than 1,000 cars try to squeeze through a single two lane exit.

The reasons for the opera’s persistence are three gorgeous numbers (see below)and some convincing choral writing. The work’s novelty value was sufficient reason for the Santa Feans to mount it. Bizet wrote a great little symphony at age 18; so an opera written at age 24 by the composer of Carmen  merits attention.

The Crosby Theater has no curtain; the first scene’s set is visible when you enter. For this production the stage was framed by – well – a frame. The back of the stage was open allowing you to see as far as alpha centauri. The frame was placed about one third of the way from the front of the stage. This space had run down buildings on either side. The action took place both behind and in front of the frame. The frame tilted down when things went wrong in the second act and snapped back up when the lovers were spared in the third. Jean-Marc Puissant’s sets included a giant hand and a Louis Seize desk. The opera takes place in Ceylon, but it’s French so I guess thats why the desk is there.

Director Lee Blakeley didn’t do anything strange. He got the singers on and off without intrusion which these days counts as directorial excellence. Because the story is pedestrian the opera depends entirely on the singing of its four principals and the chorus.

Soprano Nicole Cabell (Léïla) has been singing lyric roles such as Pamina and Michaela, but she has a rich full sound which suggests that she could move to heavier roles as her career develops. She also is strikingly good looking and acts with grace and conviction. She can trill and shade her tone to the demands of the text and music. The duet, with Nadir, ‘Léïla! Léïla!…Dieu puissant, le voilà!’ was the highlight of the evening. She has Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco on her calendar which I look forward to hearing.

Eric Cutler did as good a job with Nadir as his vocal resources allow. His lyric tenor is well produced and is well controlled. It just hasn’t the rich sensual sound required for this part, especially the great aria ‘Je crois entendre encore’. Every operaphile has the sound of Beniamino Gigli and Nicolai Gedda in his head, so Cutler had a very high bar to clear. He did quite well, sang with feeling and soft tones. But good was the most one could say.

Baritone Christopher Magiera was over matched by the relatively undemanding role of Zurga. He has a slight voice which doesn’t project. He sounded like he was singing inside a closet filled with heavy overcoats. His voice also strains at its higher notes. During the duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (along with the tenor aria) the most well known part of the opera, he was inaudible when singing with Cutler. Cutler sounded by comparison like a heldentenor and he’s a pure lyric tenor.

Bass Wayne Tigess has a large well produced voice. He was as effective as his relatively small part allowed.

Emmanuel Villaime conducted with sensitivity. The chorus, which has a lot to do, was first rate. Chorus Master Susanne Sheston deserves great credit for getting such a nuanced and forceful performance from her singers.

The costumes were a mixed bag. Ms Cabell looked pretty dumpy in her first act garb, a Buddha like affair, but was sensuously attired in a slinky gown in the two remaining acts. Nadir was dressed like Indiana Jones for reasons completely lost on me. The chorus wore clothes that looked like rejects from the Salvation Army. Zurga was bare chested in act one.  He looked like he spends lots of time in the gym – all muscle.

In summary, a good performance of an interesting opera that rarely comes around. With the knowledge of what Bizet was to do later you can see the signs of future greatness. Worth a trip to beautiful Santa Fe.