“Pearl Fishers” not a jewel at Sarasota Opera

March 17, 2013

Asako Tamura and Heath Huberg in “The Pearl Fishers” at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

Sarasota Opera is likely the only regional company in the country where The Pearl Fishers is a repertory piece. Local audiences never seem to get enough of this production of Bizet’s exotic drama, one of the company’s most effective, with J. Michael Wingfield’s ruined Hindu temple for Act 2 a genuine stunner.

Still, even with one lovely tenor aria and the most inescapable baritone-tenor duet in the repertory, it takes more than pretty stage pictures to bring off Bizet’s slight tale of a love triangle in a village of Ceylonese pearl divers.

Based on the tired, vocally undistinguished and indifferently staged matinee performance presented Saturday it may be time to give this show a rest. Consistent casting has been a sometime thing in Sarasota for a long time, but the kind of vocal sub-mediocrity on display in this current revival doesn’t do the Gulf Coast company’s reputation any favors.

Even acknowledging Sarasota Opera’s admirable effort to offer opportunities for journeyman singers, pushing a recent company Young Artist like Heath Huberg into a leading role that doesn’t suit him vocally or dramatically is baffling. The young tenor has none of the tonal refinement or soft high notes required for Nadir, with a jarringly raw and dry-toned Je crois entendre encore. As the priestess Leila caught between best friends Nadir and Zurga, Asako Tamura’s shallow soprano and squally high notes provided little pleasure.

Lower voices fared somewhat better with Lee Poulis, a more firmly placed vocal presence as Zurga. The famous duet Au fond du temple saint was anodyne at best, yet still garnered the reflexive applause from the assembled faithful. When the best singing in a Pearl Fishers production comes from the High Priest Nourabad—-the gifted bass Andrew Gangestad—you have to wonder why the company is even putting in the effort.

Keturah Stickann’s static under-energized stage direction looked like a high school pageant in the opening scene. The chorus sang strongly under Roger L. Bingaman’s direction and Robert Tweten conducted capably, if with little attention to wind tuning and expressive nuance. This wasn’t an afternoon to worry much about musical details.

The final performance of The Pearl Fishers is 8 p.m. March 22. sarasotaopera.org

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