Great Catch

The Pearl Fishers
By Georges Bizet, libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre
Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Popular opera wisdom holds that Paris prefers spectacle, so their opera ballet, sets and costumes, grandiloquent scenes and exotic locales have often triumphed over music.

Georges Bizet's 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers, which Opera Theatre of St. Louis opened last Sunday evening, certainly has (for 1863) an exotic locale. But public television has stripped Ceylon of much of its mystery and has acquainted us with its music, national dress, music and so on. The opera has possibilities for spectacular sets -- a lush but dangerous tropical-island beach, a ruined temple and wild, craggy cliffs offered the old-fashioned set designer manifold opportunities to show off. And the plot has its grandiloquence: brotherly friendship challenged by both guys' having a thing for the same girl.

Today, unfortunately, exoticism occurs only in comedy/adventure movies and Rambo-type gun battles between us good guys and misguided Third Worlders who always seem to be having bad-facial-hair days. So how does Opera Theatre, where "theater" is as important as "opera," make The Pearl Fishers new?

First, it bespeaks gifted young performers -- tenor Gregory Turay, for instance, who not only has a lush, powerful lyric voice but looks like a romantic lead as well. The best friend, baritone Mel Ulrich, seems somewhat older than Turay -- and so he should, for Turay is only 25 -- but this is appropriate for a best-friend role. Ulrich's voice, however, is strong and wide ranging. The opera's most celebrated musical moment, the Act 1 duet between tenor romantic lead and baritone best friend, requires the latter to reach up to notes usually reserved for tenors, which Ulrich does handily. His strongly acted dramatic aria at he beginning of Act 3 is sung with great musical feeling. The soprano love interest, Mary Dunleavy, matches both men in power and sweetness. Her role, however, does not involve much acting -- she is, alas, a sex object.

Stage director Travis Preston supplies a different sort of exoticism by turning the plot into a psychiatrist-induced hypnotic dream with a great deal of mysterious but visually interesting symbolism. Dunleavy, for instance, spends much of Act 2 suspended in a moon made like a chambered nautilus; dancers in diving helmets menace the principals with harpoon spears. South Sea women wear tulle tutus. Busby Berkeley, Jules Verne and Sigmund Freud join hands in this intelligent camp, and the production is a lot like the great lobby of the Fox -- silly and oddly beautiful at the same time. Christopher Barreca's sets and Christopher Akerlind's lighting are fun; Victoria Morgan's choreography carries the camp a bit too far.

Conductor Steuart Bedford sets a most satisfying tempo, and the orchestra sounds wonderful. Bizet's music is light but immensely appealing, and Bedford consistently makes the most of it, so The Pearl Fishers becomes an archetypal cute show. Just the thing for a hot summer night.

-- Harry Weber

Fiddler on the Roof
By Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Stages St. Louis

Motel the tailor celebrates his tradition-shattering engagement to Tzeitel the dairyman's daughter as a "Miracle of Miracles." Fiddler on the Roof, the musical in which this happens, is something of a miracle itself. By focusing on Tevye the dairyman and the impact on him of the abrupt changes turning his world upside down in the new 20th century, Joseph Stein's book manages to unify the four Sholom Aleichem stories it adapts for the show. Stein makes us believe that all these changes could really happen in one Russian Jewish family in 1905. Though the characters wear identifying labels -- dairyman, wife, daughter, tailor, student, matchmaker, butcher -- the script makes each of them an individual, not just a type. Stein shamelessly pushes all the easy emotional buttons about parents and children, lovers and weddings, ethnic animosities and reconciliations, and America as the welcoming golden refuge. And he throws in old jokes and vaudeville routines with beards as long and white as the rabbi's. Yet he does all this with such unaffected affection that you swallow it with pleasure and without embarrassment. If Sheldon Harnick's lyrics too often go flat where a little imagination could give them a joyful lift, Jerry Bock's ingratiating music hums happily along over those dull spots.

I can't say I felt any aching need for another Fiddler right now -- the show made one of its many Muny appearances just last summer. But the current Stages production adds pleasures of its own to those in the book and score. Among the most gratifying of these I count Michael Hamilton's growing mastery as a director. This is a fluid, tight, well-paced, energy-filled show. Dana Lewis adapts Jerome Robbins' original choreography to the small Kirkwood Civic Center stage with her usual imagination and flair. Dunsi Dai, Lou Bird and Matthew McCarthy envelop the production in appealing visual wrappings. Dai's set gives us the picturesque poverty of cottages that float over the proscenium and into the sky. Bird magically makes his costumes look both drab and colorful, with a big assist from McCarthy's shrewdly chosen lights. But if Bird is responsible for the cast's wigs, his magic ended when it got to Tevye's daughters. Kari Ely escapes relatively unscathed, but Stephanie Beschta and Amanda Gabbard have painfully unattractive bundles of yarn stuck on their heads. While I'm complaining about technical items, I'll note again the glaringly artificial synthesized sounds emanating from the pit, compounded with the boomy amplification of the cast's voices. Surely in a theater as small as Kirkwood's and with proper discretion in the pit, this cast doesn't need amplification.

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