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Valentine's 'Pearl Fishers' marries opera, ballet

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    Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) will be staged at the Valentine Theater.

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    The Toledo Opera's John Baril, conductor for The Pearl Fishers.


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    Nigel Burgoine, choreographer for The Pearl Fishers.

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    Veteran stage director and designer Bernard Uzan.


This week, three of Toledo’s major arts organizations are teaming to produce one of the most beautiful, poignant operas in all of the literature, Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers).

The Toledo Opera, the Toledo Symphony, and the Ballet Theatre of Toledo unite their artistic gifts to offer an aesthetic experience that touches all the senses.

Bizet wrote 26 dramatic works of various length, only two of which continue to have regular productions: the beloved Carmen, and The Pearl Fishers.

The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1863, just before the composer’s 25th birthday. The reception was spotty at best. Coming at a time when opera was suffering an identify crisis, shifting between the light formality of classicism and the soon-to-come force of true romantic opera.

Bizet was criticized as borrowing styles from too many composers and of writing too heavily, the work being a three-act fortissimo fest. Only the composer and critic Hector Berlioz saw the true genius of the work. Berlioz commented on the exoticism of the orchestration and the beauty of the atmospheres Bizet had captured.

The opera is set in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka, in a simple fishing village on the eve of the annual dive for the ocean’s most precious treasure: pearls. It is the story of two friends, Zurga and Nadir, who become rivals over a forbidden beauty, Leila, a Hindu priestess.

As the story unfolds, a series of lies and deceptions lead to a denouement where one of the two protagonists must choose between the life of his friend, the loss of his love, and the loss of the life he has known. It is a psychological drama, pitting self-preservation against loyalty and honor.

The score is exotic and sensual, the scenery lush and tropical. The characters are an intricate study in eastern values and morality.

The Toledo production brings together three accomplished artists to tackle this challenge. Veteran stage director and designer Bernard Uzan joins Toledo choreographer Nigel Burgoine and new-to-the-Toledo-Opera conductor John Baril.

Uzan has brought his gifts to many Toledo Opera productions. He has staged more than 400 operas in his career. He is a master of splitting the hairs of a composer’s texts to find the nuances behind the dramatic intent and then empowering singers to embrace them.

Burgoine is a local wizard recognized for his genius of wedding dance to music. He is a graduate of the Royal Ballet School and former principal dancer with the London Festival Ballet.

Baril is the music director at Central City Opera of Denver and has been actively involved in productions since 1992.

The addition of ballet to this production of the Opera is not a novel concept. Classical ballet actually has its roots in operatic theatre. The French began adding dance to stage productions in the Baroque period (1600-1750).

Soon the dance sections became so long, they overshadowed the operas. Composers split them off to be separate dramatic pieces, and — voila! — classical ballet was born.

As for Pearl Fishers, Burgoine was approached about adding dance to the Opera’s production as a way of expanding the storyline and creating a multidisciplinary approach to the staging.

“When I originally started the choreography, I spoke to Uzan and asked if I could feature the fact that the dancing did actually represent pearl fishing,” Burgoine said. “I have blended the dance moves with diving and swimming motions to emphasize the rituals that the divers would perform before leaving the shores.”

As for working collaboratively, he observed, “Blending ballet with the opera is always an exciting and complementary experience.”

Though it has its compromises as well.

“Working with the dancers has been wonderful,” he said. “I had to make sure, however, they understood that even though I’m choreographing the dances, the director may want to make changes in the actual staging.”

Soprano Danielle Pastin, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, tackles the bewitching role of the priestess Leila.

Tenor Yi Li brings his lyricism to the role of faithless friend Nadir, seducer of Leila. This season he appears with the Finger Lakes Opera, the Nashville Opera, and the Met as well.

Completing the triangle as the faithful friend Zurga, baritone Luis Ledesma, winner of the Pavarotti International Voice Competition, comes via the New York City Opera, Palm Beach Opera, and Opera San Antonio.

Finally, a favorite of the San Francisco Opera for more than 30 years, bass Kevin Langan completes the cast as the high priest Nourabad, who stands as the moral balance against which the three protagonists must be weighed.

Rounding it out is Toledo’s own Opera Chorus, prepared by Chorus Master and Head of Music Preparation Kevin Bylsma.

According to Opera Executive Director Suzanne Rorick, “The chorus actually is the gem of the production; they have simply knocked themselves out. Their preparation has been exceptional, and their contribution to the overall production stupendous. It is simply beautiful.”

Evocative sets enhanced with visual projections by Michael Baumgarten and costumes designed by Betsy Goldman complete the production’s exotic island magic.

The production is being staged with the support of ProMedica, Block Communications Inc., The Blade, and WGTE-TV, with additional support from the Ohio Arts Council.

The show opens 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St.. Tickets, $30-$80, are available from the Toledo Opera Box Office, 419-255- 7464, or A free lecture on the opera is open to ticket holders one hour before each performance in the theatre’s Grand Lobby.

A student night performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, sponsored by The Andersons. Area middle school, high school, and university students can attend the production for $5. Interested students and teachers should contact the Toledo Opera Box Office.

Contact Wayne F. Anthony at:

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