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Published: Friday, 6/11/2004

Friendship and betrayal in Ceylon

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Visually, the stage of Michigan Opera Theatre's current production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is an eclectic amalgamation of things new, ideas just out of reach. Close your eyes, however, and one hears the familiar world of 19th-century Romanticism. Curiously, the two fit like glove to hand.

Set in Ceylon, this engaging, but rarely performed, French opera tells the story of friendship, betrayal, and redemption.

At the center is Zurga, the steely-armed chief of the pearl-fishing village. As the inhabitants prepare for the fishing season, Nadir, Zurga's best friend, returns from a long absence. All await the arrival of Leila, a virgin whose sanctity will keep the village safe from storms. The two men sing an extended duet about their pact never to vie for the love of a mysterious woman they once encountered outside the gates of Candi.

It's a pact well made but swiftly broken, for Leila is indeed the beauty from Candi. In short order, Nadir seduces her, nature unleashes its fury, and the bitter Zurga sentences lovers to death. In the end, however, Zurga sacrifices his own life and allows the pair to escape.

Written quickly in 1863 for a composition competition, The Pearl Fishers is an early example of mid-19th century Europe's growing fascination with the distant cultures of the East. Emotionally, it's a remarkably mature work for a 25 year old. Bizet richly explores notions of honor and passion, selflessness and selfishness, tradition and innovation. He reinforces his moral message with recurring musical themes representing love and redemption.

Designer Zandra Rhodes incorporated the story's exoticism into both costumes and sets. Religious figures (including Leila) are

enfolded in monk's saffron, the villagers in watery hues of blue and green. All seem to live in a fantasy land built of matchstick palms that struggle to sway stiffly under skies of surreal colors and energies.

The expressive baritone Nathan Gunn gave a gripping performance as Zurga, a man who loved both dearly and painfully.

Clear-toned tenor William Burden was convincing as Zurga's friend Nadir but seemed to drift sideways into his betrayal. Soprano Diane Alexander slipped too easily as well. Surely this illicit love, the existence of which challenged nature itself, could have used a bit more passion.

Bass David Michael was a commanding presence as the high priest Nourabad.

The orchestra was secure under the direction of Mark Glint, though less expressive than one might have hoped. Choreography by John Malashock was exuberant but unfocused.

Michigan Opera Theatre presents "The Pearl Fishers" at 8 tonight and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Detroit Opera House 1526 Broadway. Tickets range from $26 to $113. Information: 313-237-7464.

Contact Steven Cornelius at 419-724-6152 or scornelius@theblade.com.



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