By JOHN DeMERS
Having just watched opening night of Opera in the Heights’ The Pearl Fishers, Georges Bizet’s youthful immersion in frothy Orientalism, I’m inclined to start the Brian Byrnes Opera Fan Club.
What, you could rightly fire back, isn’t he the guy who stages all those swordfights? Like at the Alley? Or Houston Grand Opera? Or anyplace else where fine swordfights are sold. Yes, he is that guy. Yet at the conclusion of his third OH outing (the first two being La Boheme and Don Carlo), I’m ready to declare I won’t go see any opera he doesn’t direct. Well, all right, that might be a bit harsh. But Byrnes’ full, rich, human and utterly natural way of moving people around the stage forces me to think he could make the dumbest opera make sense. There’s a lifetime of work in that!
The Pearl Fishers is exactly what Europeans were lapping up throughout the 19th century, gauzy adventures in essentially a galaxy far, far away. It’s the tale of a love triangle similar to the one the composer would milk so brilliantly later in Carmen, except here the two guys fighting over the girl are best friends. There’s a religion that makes no sense, along with crowd reactions that make no sense – most of them driven by their religion, which all adds up, in the 1800s, to the perfect escape from oh-so-French reality. People pray to odd gods, flash knives at odd times and generally behave in the odd ways fishermen in Ceylon might if you’ve never met a fisherman from Ceylon.
Still, there is the music – incredible, awe-inspiring, lyrical, mildly exotic, at least some of which presages the far better use it gets put to in Carmen. Several key moments fling forth the emotional promise fulfilled by “Micaela’s Air.” And in a delightful doff of the hat to that fact, Brynes even gives the tenor a chance to lift a flower from the beach before his big solo, a delicious homage to Don Jose’s famous “Flower Song.” Strangely, the two greatest melodies tucked away in Pearl Fishers are spent in Act I, meaning that the best moments of Acts II and III are Bizet’s effective reprises of that pair of songs.
In the opening night Emerald cast, baritone Yoonsang Lee as Zurga sang and acted his way into as much believability as this plot could hope for, truly living the lyrics one line at a time – a signature of Byrnes’ operatic directing. Lee’s early duet with tenor Fabian Robles as friend-rival Nadir, “Au fond du temple saint,” essentially functions as the opera’s rather strange second-hand love duet – two guys remembering the night they first laid eyes on the girl. For his part, Robles initially seemed a little on the light side vocally, a regular occurrence in French operas anyway; but by the time he sang the opera’s other greatest hit, “Je crois entendre encore,” he had located enough gravitas to keep us listening all evening long. While left out of these dynamite moments, soprano Ani Maldjian brought exotic beauty and no shortage of coloratura flittering to the role of Leila.
Daymon Passmore did well in the bass role of Nourabad, though he had so little to do at times it was a challenge to even Byrnes. At the very least, in honor of Teddy Roosevelt, someone should give this guy a bigger stick – his Act III outburst of anger banging his staff on the ground was the sound of a 1950s nun armed with a plastic ruler. You’ll see what I mean. The OH chorus sang with its usual tight-knit musicality, reminding many of an excellent church choir. And one added attraction is dance choreographed with visuals out of an Indian temple by Houston’s own Dominic Walsh. It’s danced effortlessly by two members of his company, Marissa Leigh Gomer and Ty Parmenter.
The Pearl Fishers, conducted by Linus Lerner, closes out the Opera in the Heights season. There are more performances left, even if many are sold out. Do whatever you can to get tickets to see a young opera company do wonders with the brilliance of a young composer we know went on to give opera its single greatest hit.
Photos by Ted Viens, Sergio Garcia Rill and Gwen Turner Juarez. (top) Robles and Maldjian; (middle) Lee; (bottom) Gomer and Parmenter.