Going up the steps from Van Ness into the lobby of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House for the opening of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, past the big floral displays and into the cavernous auditorium, looking up beyond the boxes, the grand tier (beautifully garlanded with white flowers and foliage) and the balcony, I thought of a comment by Bizet’s older contemporary, poet Charles Baudelaire: “The real hero in any theater is the chandelier”—an immense sunburst of glass and light.
The ornateness of the Opera House, which opened with Tosca in 1932, and opera’s “snobbish” reputation as “high culture” can put off many who would enjoy what originally was an entertainment for the middle and lower classes. A great deal of the pleasure of opera comes from the mix of different elements. The orchestral music, singing, dance, scenery, costumes and lighting are usually more to the point than the plots, which can be a bit hard to take. But with a quick glance at the discreetly placed supertitle screen, where the breezy translations cut to the chase, it’s easy to follow the professions of eternal love, the angry throes of jealousy, the outcries of passion as they come along.
And the Opera House is a show in itself. The variety of the crowd is always a surprise. On opening night tuxedos and gowns glide—or shuffle—past more casual dress, or unusual costumery bannering the occasion. Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, whose neo-fauvist production design for The Pearl Fishers has caused a stir, stood out on the first night, even in this wild melange of style, in a splendid blue gown with her hair the set’s signature color of magenta (which some society columns glossed as “pink”). Swirling around at intermission, this audience would disabuse any notion of the stuffiness of opera.
Some of the more fantastic get-ups are on the standees, who know the cheapest and most casual way to attend, at $10 cash per ticket, sold after 10 a.m. on the day of the performance. Standees flock to the balcony, where the view of the stage is at a steep angle, but the sound is believed to be the best in the house, or to the better sightlines in the dress circle or the orchestra. Some have been known to slip into empty seats after the first intermission.
If the performance isn’t sold out, students ($15 cash), seniors and members of the military ($30, cards okay) can buy rush tickets after 11 on performance days. (Call the day before to find out if rush tickets will be available.)
As the lights go down for Pearl Fishers, a gorgeous curtain, depicting Sri Lankan pearl divers on their platforms, goes up, revealing through the hazy gauze of a scrim live pearl fishers on their platforms above the waves in the background. Darkness falls; the figure of Zurga (British baritone William Dazeley in his San Francisco debut) steps forward impressively, brooding in a shaft of light. But darkness is dispelled by a tropical glow. Great palms and lush jungle foliage in bright colors, a little cartoonish as if clipped from a huge storybook, loom up at the wings. A crowd in sumptuous saris and turbans flows out singing, and a ballet of villagers begins. This is the kind of spectacle that makes grand opera particularly worth seeing in the big houses, which can put on such pageantry, keep a professional orchestra and chorus, and bring in the great voices.
And the voices are wonderful in the famous duet, “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” when Zurga (who’s just been chosen headman of the pearl fishers) and his estranged childhood friend Nadir (tenor Charles Castronovo alumnus of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program) put aside differences and swear eternal friendship. Their bonds had been threatened by their mutual attraction to the beautiful Leila, seen at a temple in the city of Kandy. But, as fate would have it, a veiled virgin priestess carried in on a litter in great pomp now turns out to be none other than Leila (French coloratura soprano Norah Ansellem).
That’s just the first act. From here on in, the plot tangles up with love, passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and also generosity and self-sacrifice. The ins and outs are marked with wonderfully lyrical singing, duets and solo arias, chorus as well as principals. There are splendid effects of sweet, floating sound when either chorus or Castronovo (a lyric tenor who can make the heart leap) sing from backstage, outside the temple where Leila retreats after singing prayers for the safety of the pearl divers on a cliff above the ocean, and receives a forbidden visit from Nadir.
Dazeley’s presence is a study in operatic acting, an art by itself. His duets with both Castronovo and Ansellem are stirring, and his soul-searching, jealousy-tinged solo after intermission is a high point. Ansellem shows great technique and excitement. Though warm, the ovation given her at curtain call on opening night wasn’t enough of an acknowledgment.
Bizet is more famous for Carmen, his last opera. Bizet’s supporters pumped up the score of Carmen to Grand Opera status to bring him recognition after his death at 37, giving the former “comic opera” overtones of a tour-de-force. Many opera lovers prefer the earlier Pearl Fishers (composed when Bizet was 24). In any case, it’s a worthy precursor to the more famous music and story of its illustrious gypsy successor.
The Pearl Fishers runs through July 9 at the San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave. at Grove St., San Francisco. For ticktets and showtimes, go to www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330.›