Georges Bizet's life was tragic enough for an opera. The composer of the iconic work Carmen died at the young age of 37, well before fame had found him. Even the work for which he's best known was panned by critics, who were shocked by the low-life characters. A prostitute, criminals, and poorly mannered military men weren't exactly fit for the 19th-century stage.
And though Bizet's Carmen is one of the most popular operas today — even MTV adapted it with a young Beyoncé playing the title role — the composer's The Pearl Fishers is just now beginning to enjoy a renaissance.
"When I conducted Carmen in 2004," says Anthony Barrese, conductor of Florida Grand Opera's upcoming production of The Pearl Fishers, "I had already assisted on two different productions of Carmen, so I was already familiar with the score. That production was also in English. Since then, I've conducted over 30 operas, the large part of them in Italian. I love French opera, but I don't get to do it a lot. My approach to studying Bizet is the same as it is with any other composer. But having done Carmen made this a little easier in that I could see where the composer was going. A lot of his ideas are just as sophisticated and creative as in Carmen, and there is a youthful vitality to the work that keeps it musically fresh on every page."
The Pearl Fishers is set in ancient Ceylon, where two lifelong friends, Nadir and Zurga, fall in love with the same woman, Leïla, despite their vow to never let a woman come between them. But this is opera, and things clearly won't end well. Many years later, Leïla, now a beautiful temple virgin, crosses paths with Nadir, and the two lovers are discovered and delivered to Zurga, the village leader, for justice. In spite of broken friendships and broken hearts, the embattled friends belt out one of Bizet's most famous duets, "The Pearl Fishers' Duet."
This production comes from Sarasota, and Barrese was an assistant conductor when it was performed in 2003. In his short time on the conductor's podium, he has learned this is a production that requires methodology, respect, and poise. "The director A. Scott Parry and I have worked before, and we have a really simpatico relationship. He's also a musician, so he's very respectful of my process," Barrese explains. "Since we have two different casts in this production, we've gone out of our way to make sure both casts are treated equally. But I'm also trying to not be rigid about it. Both casts contain very different singers, and what is appropriate for one Leïla may not be appropriate for the other Leïla. This is the first time in a long time that I've had to conduct two different casts, and the challenge is interesting. My score is filled with little reminders of how each singer does things a little differently: a note held a little longer here, a breath taken there."
Florida Grand Opera (FGO) has already staged two remarkable productions this season — Madame Butterfly and Così Fan Tutte. It's no secret those productions have succeeded because the company has wisely entrusted the right people with the job — a formula that FGO is sure to repeat in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers with Barrese at the helm.
The Pearl Fishers debuts at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 28, and runs through March 7 at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $21 to $225. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.
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