By Georges Bizet
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Directed by Andrew Sinclair

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Georges Bizet was a mere 24 years old when he composed "The Pearl Fishers" ("Les Pêcheurs de Perles"), which premiered in 1863. It's not the masterpiece of his later "Carmen," but it has more than its share of musical highlights. It's best known for "Au fond du temple saint," perhaps the most beautiful tenor-baritone duet ever written, but there's much more to enjoy, too, as so well demonstrated by the San Francisco Opera production conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

This production also is a treat for the eyes, thanks to Zandra Rhodes' set and costume designs. The San Diego-based designer uses vivid, fluorescent colors to create an exotic tropical, seaside setting in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They're complemented by Ron Vodicka's lighting.

The singing is excellent, with baritone William Dazeley as Zurga, the chosen leader of the pearl-fishing people. Dazeley has a rich voice, but better posture would give him a stronger stage presence. Tenor Charles Castronovo portrays Nadir, a hunter who returns to the island after he and Zurga both were enchanted by the same woman but agreed to forgo her love to preserve their friendship. The muscular Castronovo has a lyrical voice and excellent technique, especially when he goes into falsetto. Soprano Norah Amsellem appears as Leïla, the virgin priestess who arrives to pray for the pearl fishers' safety. Her highest notes aren't always right on, but otherwise she has great control and a lovely pianissimo. By coincidence, Leïla is the woman who had earlier enchanted the two men, as Nadir quickly discovers. Bass Mark Coles is impressive as Nourabad, the high priest who oversees Leïla.

Ian Robertson's chorus is generally good, but it had some unity problems in early scenes of the reviewed performance. Andrew Sinclair's stage direction isn't always helpful, with choral scenes sometimes looking like general milling. He also has a penchant for having the soloists on the floor while singing, not the optimal or even most logical stance. John Malashock's choreography, so well executed by the company's dancers, contributes greatly to the production.

It all adds up to a satisfying evening at the opera, part of the company's summer festival, dubbed "The Gamble of Love."

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