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Seen and Heard International Opera Review
Pearl Fishers and Queen of Spades at San Francisco Opera (HS)
Bizet: The Pearl Fishers, San Francisco Opera, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conductor, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 14 June 2005.
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles, conductor, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 15 June 2005.
The two final operas of the San Francisco Opera 2004-2005 season demonstrate again all the good things and the bad things about Pamela Rosenberg's tenure as general director. David Glockley arrives from Houston Grand Opera later this year to replace her.
A Rosenberg-hatched marketing package for three scheduled June productions is called "The Gamble of Love," comprising a reprise of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from the fall 2004 portion of the schedule, Bizet's early bauble The Pearl Fishers and Tchaikovsky's dark tale from Pushkin, Queen of Spades. Finding tenuous intellectual connections among musically unrelated operas has been one of Rosenberg's sincere attempts to broaden the audience for opera. She has favored intellectual productions to emphasize the relevance of opera and only occasionally populated the stage with singers with real star quality. When it all comes together, and it has from time to time, it could be thrilling.
Pearl Fishers hasn't been seen at San Francisco Opera for decades. A product of a 24-year-old Bizet, it has a few moments of brilliance that stamp the work as one from the composer who would produce Carmen 13 years later. It has two certified golden moments -- the tenor-baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint" in Act I and the tenor aria "Mi par d'udire ancora" in Act II. There are also some glimpses of Bizet's delicate touch with orchestration, but this love triangle story is a creaky dramatic vehicle at best.
One good reason to mount this opera might be to showcase great singers in the three prime roles. If a conductor who can draw out the perfumed French exoticism in the score, you might have a winner musically. What we got was three solid but not very magical singers in a colorful, intermittently witty series of cartoonish sets and gaudy costumes fashion designer Zandra Rhodes made for San Diego Opera. It's meant to evoke the exotic setting -- a seaside village in Ceylon -- as is Bizet's music, but German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing made the score sound like pretty plain stuff.
Norah Ansellem floated some lovely sounds as Léďla, the virgin priest at the apex of the opera's love triangle, and looked rather fetching in her two-piece magenta and yellow outfit, a gigantic red jewel in her navel bobbing around with every breath. Tenor Charles Castronovo sang tentatively but with appealing sweetness as the wayward Nadir, who yields to his passion for Léďla and sets the potboiler plot in motion. Baritone William Dazely, who sings regularly at Covent Garden, had commanding presence and real musicality as Zurga, the village leader who shares Nadir's love for Léďla.
As good as both men looked in their costumes, star-quality singing might have made up for the prancing dancers who seemed to be poised (or posed) to take over every scene.
As hard as Pearl Fishers struggles to give us eye candy to distract us from its shortcomings as a full-fledged opera, the gray Queen of Spades production underlines the nasty undercurrents among the characters and their raw pathologies. For this much meatier opera, Richard Jones' dark production borrowed from Welsh National Opera attempts to portray in the staging what the characters are going through psychologically.
Interior sets are cramped and perspectives skewed. Depictions of exteriors are minimalistic. A Moscow public park in the opening scene consisted of three benches placed diagonally on a bare stage. The same empty stage later served as the palace, and the three benches returned to be the river embankment scene, which leaves Lisa nowhere to drown herself. The director has her pull a plastic bag over her head just before the scene blacked out, a shocking moment but weak on several counts. It happens fast and unexpectedly, and it's an anachronism. Even if the production updates the action a full century to 1890 (when the opera debuted), they didn't have plastic bags in those days either.
To make up for the lack of scenery, director Roy Rallo has crowds of choristers and extras move across the stage from time to time. It stylizes the crowd scenes, but it also gets irksome. I kept thinking of Paul Taylor's dances wherein a solo dancer or several in a group flash across the stage for the sheer joy of it. Only this was not about joy.
One of the best touches in the production is the use of puppetry for the famous ballet pastoral in Act II. Chris Pirie, who designed the puppets for the original Welsh production, creates a charming interlude with a tiny shepherd and shepherdess, each manipulated by two men, and life-size puppets of an old man and, ultimately, the countess character in the opera. They enact a more direct reflection of the opera's plot than the Daphnis et Chloe story usually done as the ballet.
Later the table on which this occurs reappears, even bigger, as the card table for the final scene. It is tilted up at a sharp angle. For the barracks scene, the set makes it look as if we are peering down at Gherman in his bed (actually stood upright), and a realistic puppet of a full-size skeleton emerges from under the covers representing the countess. This draws nervous laughter and gasps fro the audience. The skeleton appears later in the final scene, looking down as Gherman gambles away his last cent on an ace, only to have it come up the queen of spades.
All this stuff makes us pay less attention to the vocal shortcomings of the cast, who do act their roles well. Tenor Misha Didyk summons up a smallish sound as Gherman, the army captain obsessed with gambling who irrationally falls in love with a woman already betrothed. Soprano Katarina Dalayman's often squally tone makes Lisa, the woman who is the focus of Gherman's obsession, less attractive. Baritone John Hancock sings Prince Yeletsky suavely, caressing the famous aria, fearlessly scaling its high tessitura, and played him like one of Monty Python's upper class twits. OK, maybe not quite that exaggerated, but the character comes off as not the sharpest tack in the drawer, which helps explain why Lisa would opt for the distracted but brooding Gherman.
The most dramatic and complete performance of the cast is Hanna Schwarz's Countess. You can tell she was once the Venus of Moscow, and she still believes it. Her little rendition of the song by Grétry was a marvel of delicacy -- at once beautiful to hear and clearly the production of an old woman's voice. Other singers who made strong impressions were Adam Klein as Chekalinsky, Tómas Tómasson as Tomsky and Katherine Rohrer as Paulina.
And oh, what a difference a conductor makes. With music director Donald Runnicles whipping up the orchestra to close to fever pitch, the dark Russian soul of this score burst out strongly. The Haydn pastiche of the pastoral came off with all its delicacy intact. The only conductor I've ever heard get more out of this opera's music was Valery Gergiev. The propulsiveness of what was coming out of the pit put the best light on a solid if ultimately less than stellar cast, but its swept the bizarre and compelling story to its ultimate conclusion.