Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pearl Fishers at Opera Hamilton

I heard the Opera Hamilton Pearl Fishers last night and it was a satisfying evening of beautiful music and very fine singing. Most will be familiar with Bizet in his incarnation as a Hispanophile in Carmen and the incidental music to L'Arlésienne. It's interesting to hear him trying out the Orientalism that was fashionable in the Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.

This was also choir master and conductor Peter Oleskevich's last performance as he is leaving Opera Hamilton after 25 years.

The opera was played on a diagonally raked stage decorated minimally with three tall tree trunks and a candle covered altar. The same set served for each of the three acts. I don't doubt that the opera could be presented on a different extravagant set for each act, but for this company and theatre, this worked perfectly well. Stage direction was by Brian Deedrick, functional and workmanlike.

Nadir and Zurga (Tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez and Baritone Brett Polegato) were bare-chested, made up with tattoos and sporting peculiar dreadlock-like wigs. It was odd to see them so differently presented from the choristers, their friends and peers. Nourabad (Bass-Baritone Stephen Hegedus) was appropriately costumed as a Brahmin priest. Léïla (Soprano Virginia Hatfield) wore a flowing robe, displaying none of the magical appeal the character should have, and was veiled through much of the opera.
The chorus wore generic beige to off white Middle-Eastern looking robes or dress with head coverings including turbans.

We'd heard Ramirez before at Opera Hamilton, as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. He was a standout in that opera as he is here. He sang this Romantic music convincingly and sounded French. He isn't an especially effusive actor but was certainly convincing enough in this role. He and Polegato did a fine job of the First Act Duet whose music recurs throughout the opera. I hope he isn't convinced to tackle heavier roles any time soon. His voice is already plenty dark and perfect for the roles I have heard him sing.

Brett Polegato and Edgar Ernesto Ramirez in Pearl Fishers

Stephen Hegedus was on stage quite a lot but Nourabad hasn't much to sing which is, in this case, too bad. He has a fine voice and decent stage manner. It was great to hear such a good performer in such a minor role at Opera Hamilton.

I really wanted to like Virginia Hatfield as Léïla. She communicated the innocence of the chaste priestess showing off an electric smile from beneath the veil in her first appearance. The audience, however, has to believe this character to be so enchanting that Nadir and Zurga, from a distance, both fall hopelessly in love with her. Hatfield didn't project that kind of charisma. Moreover, she has a Light Soprano voice and this role calls for a Lyric. There is no way she could match the timbre and volume of the men. I hope to hear her again in more appropriate repertoire.

Virginia Hatfield as Léïla
Brett Polegato, the star of the show, certainly demonstrated why he has sung Pelléas, another important French baritone role, all over Europe. He has a beautiful voice including a glorious high register and fine stage presence. I'd like to hear him as Valentine in Faust.

The small orchestra (30 pieces) made a surprisingly good effect with nice solos from clarinetist Stephen Pierre, flautist Leslie Newman, and oboist Jon Peterson and harpist Erica Goodman.

The chorus was adequate most of the time, especially (as was noted elsewhere) when they were singing loudly. It was disturbing, though, when the male choristers seemed surprised at exposed entries. At one point they were all supposed to raise their arms in unison. They didn't. 

Opera Hamilton is back next season, again at the DuMaurier Centre (Theatre Aquarius). They are presenting Verdi's Falstaff in October, the Popera Concert in January of 2014 and Bizet's Carmen in April. Cast lists have yet to be announced; I hesitate to buy tickets for performances without knowing the names of the principal singers.

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