Soprano Carroll is the heart of Houston Grand Opera’s “The Pearl Fishers” 

Sat Jan 26, 2019 at 1:29 pm
By Steven Brown

Andrea Carroll as the priestess Leila in Houston Grand Opera’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo: Lynn Lane/HGO

Houston Grand Opera says that when it surveys its audiences about works they’d like to see, Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers tops the list. Friday night, Bizet’s fans finally got what they wanted: HGO raised the curtain in the Brown Theater on its first-ever staging of the young Bizet’s feast of melody.

Some of the score’s poetry got short shrift, but HGO’s Pearl Fishers reveled in spectacle and big-tune ardor.

Designer Zandra Rhodes’ sets could have sprung from a pop-up storybook, with blazing colors that set the scene in a tropical fantasyland. Her costumes — in rich blues, greens and pinks — added another layer of dazzle.

Stage director E. Loren Meeker and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel contributed their own eye-catching strokes. Meeker molded the principals, HGO Chorus and extras into imposing tableaux, from the solemn ritual for the village’s dead leader at the outset to the crowd begging Brahma for mercy at Act 2’s climax. Fogel’s nine dancers enhanced the story’s otherworldliness and intensity, especially when they menaced the illicit lovers Leila and Nadir in the final scene.

But the heart of Pearl Fishers’ appeal, and no doubt the reason for the clamor in HGO’s surveys, is the music’s tunefulness and allure. When it came to capturing both, soprano Andrea Carroll stood out.

As Leila, the priestess who violates her vows by loving Nadir, Carroll brought the music vibrancy, expressiveness and warmth, and her silvery pianissimos may have been the most poetic ingredient in the whole production. In Act 1, Carroll’s singing was as airy as the little dance she did with the music unfolding.

She gave more lyricism and breadth to Leila’s aria, “Comme autrefois,” where the pianissimos were especially telling. Carroll’s voice welled up urgently when Leila feared she and Nadir would be caught, and when Leila begged Zurga — the third member of the love triangle — to spare Nadir’s life.

The friendship between Nadir and Zurga is the story’s other driving force, although you wouldn’t know it from the performances given by tenor Lawrence Brownlee and baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, respectively.

Both sang with impact: Brownlee’s voice was bright and ringing; Elliott’s hefty and resonant. But both men mostly sang full-throttle. The characters and their music alike came across as one-dimensional.

In the men’s friendship duet, the opera’s most-famous number, Brownlee and Elliott made the big tune grand and forceful. But they hardly eased up to give the music warmth.

Brownlee delivered Nadir’s short Act 1 number, a salute to the joys of hunting, with a flourish. But in Nadir’s aria, “Je crois entendre encore” — an evocative tour de force, when sung with delicacy — Brownlee never captured the music’s magic. He sang it more or less full voice throughout, with no variation in tone or loudness. And even when Nadir was romancing Leila, Brownlee mostly declaimed the music emphatically. Nothing about it conveyed tenderness.

Zurga (Alexander Birch Elliott) and Nadir (Lawrence Brownlee), friends at first in Houston Grand Opera’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo: Lynn Lane/HGO

Elliott did treat Bizet to a very few gentle moments. When Zurga heralded Leila’s first appearance, Elliott tapered the music to a whisper. He also brought a couple of mellow, introspective moments to Zurga’s remorseful Act 3 aria.

But those were almost lost amid the force and vehemence that dominated Zurga’s commands and condemnations. Some of the biggest moments rang out imposingly.  But in Act 3, Elliott’s voice at times took on an almost bellowing edge.

Bass Federico De Michelis sang with a depth and sturdiness that gave stature to Nourabad, the high priest. And the HGO Chorus — as the fishermen, clergy and other inhabitants of the tale — summoned both power for majestic climaxes and delicacy and lilt to bring out the music’s charms, as in Act 1’s welcome of Leila.

Guest conductor Roderick Cox, making his opera debut, by and large had the cast, chorus and HGO Orchestra firmly in hand. Cox, former associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, brought out the orchestral part’s color and impact without overwhelming the singers, and he let Bizet’s tunes flow out smoothly. At the music’s most powerful, the orchestra and chorus created a sonic spectacle that complemented the evening’s visual ones.

The Pearl Fishers continues through Feb. 8 in the Brown Theater in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center.; 713-228-6737.

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