SFO debuts with 'Pearl Fishers'

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By Melissa Riedel-Espinoza

This year, the Santa Fe Opera broke with tradition, presenting its operas at 8:30 p.m., instead of the customary 9 p.m. — this is a wise decision. Those attending Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” will be treated to an impressive New Mexican sunset, seen through a large gilt frame that is an integral part of the opera’s impressive set.
From the very first note, it is apparent that the conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, has an excellent feel for Bizet’s music. His fluent, expressive style of conducting brought out a wide range of colors from a versatile and masterful orchestra.
Make no mistake, this opera isn’t “Carmen,” and the tunes might not be as well known, but it was obviously composed by the same man. His characteristic Spanish style is present and although there are times when the orchestration is heavy and the singers fade back to a secondary role, this is short-lived. Bizet gave the singers many moments to shine.
The standout scene of the night is the tenor aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” sung by Eric Cutler as Nadir, a fisherman and ardent admirer of the chaste Leïla. After a slow start, created partially by a slightly incoherent storyline (not unusual for opera; read the synopsis before going), Cutler’s aria shows off beautiful dynamic contrast.
The audience applause after his last note obliterated the delicate tension created by Cutler’s gorgeous phrasing, Leïla, rising up on a large hand at the back of the stage, and the sky, which was a perfect backdrop. Nonetheless, Cutler deserves every second of applause. This role is a superb fit for his voice, especially when it floats above a subdued orchestra.  
Christopher Magiera does an admirable job in his role as Zurga. In the first act, he is not as audible as one might like, primarily in the lower parts of his role. This isn’t a ongoing issue, however, and his singing is quite enjoyable throughout the opera. His voice has a nice, dark tone, very suitable for French music, and is seamless from top to bottom.
Nicole Cabell is stunning as Leïla. With her stage-perfect face and hands, the audience’s eyes are drawn to her, even when she is in the background. Cabell’s singing is fluid and well balanced, and she has good chemistry with Cutler. Her high notes are well-controlled and focused; it might be interesting, at times, to hear more power, especially when the orchestra is going full-tilt.
Wayne Tigges, as Nourabad, is engaging, along with a full, capable chorus. Their sun-bleached costumes are perfect for inhabitants of a fishing village. At times, though, there are many “jazz hands” in the chorus that don’t fit well with the rest of the piece. The set is impeccable, a work of art along with the lighting and direction.
This opera is a wonderful choice for a wide range of audiences. There is no detail that has been overlooked, and the result is an opera that will appeal to just about anyone who enjoys good music and beautiful singing.