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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Lust and betrayal
The Pearl Fishers portrays a friendship gone bad
Campellone conducts an opera full of fire.
Campellone conducts an opera full of fire.

The Pearl Fishers
Friday (8 pm) and Sunday (2:30 pm), April 13 and 15, Overture Center's Overture Hall

Madison Opera will go for hard-hitting drama in its first production of Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. No wallpaper chorus for stage director Stephanie Sundine.

French conductor Laurent Campellone will make his American debut at the podium, guiding the Madison Symphony Orchestra through the opera's lush score.

When The Pearl Fishers premiered at Paris' ThÃÃtre-Lyrique in 1863, Bizet was 25. Audience reception was warm, but critics were cool. This wasn't a surprising outcome since Bizet and critics had a toxic relationship. He called them 'idiots' and they wrote icy reviews of all his operas from The Pearl Fishers to Carmen. But Hector Berlioz, music critic for the Journal des DÃbats, stood apart from his fellow journalists and praised the score to The Pearl Fishers as full of fire and rich color.

'The Pearl Fishers is like Carmen without the Spanish flair,' says Allan Naplan, general director of the Madison Opera. 'It's an extremely accessible story of love, friendship and betrayal.'

The opening scene takes place on an arid beach in ancient Ceylon, where the pearl fishers choose Zurga (baritone Robert Gardner) to be their king. Nadir (tenor Eric Fennell), Zurga's childhood friend, arrives and is invited to join the camp. Then Zurga asks the fateful question. 'Have you remained true to your oath?'

Nadir says it has been difficult, but yes. The oath concerns Leila (soprano Leah Partridge), whom they both fell in love with years ago, but promised not to pursue for the sake of their friendship. All seems well until a veiled priestess arrives who has been hired to sing to Brahma night and day to protect the pearl fishers from peril. The priestess is Leila, who vows to live without friend, husband or lover during her tenure. If she keeps her vows, the most beautiful pearl will be hers, but if she breaks them, death is certain.

Her love for Nadir overpowers her vows and sets nature on edge. When the high priest (bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin) reveals her secret affair, the wrath of Zurga and the pearl fishers turns electric. The only thing that will save Leila and Nadir is a necklace from the past.

'The Pearl Fishers has one of the most recognizable tunes in all of opera, 'Au fond du temple saint,' the duet between Zurga and Nadir as they remember their first glimpse of Leila,' says Naplan. 'It appears as a leitmotif that comes back throughout the opera, and it's sung in several languages all over the world.'

But the opera doesn't flaunt male voices alone. The role of Leila, a lyric coloratura, calls for ultimate versatility and finesse.

The magic of The Pearl Fishers won't stop at the music. The stage will light up with dancing amid massive temple ruins, and a colorful array of costumes will take us back to the blue waves and starry nights that Bizet dreamed of as he wrote this gem of an opera.

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