Lyric Opera of Chicago “The Pearl Fishers” Review – A Beautiful Experience

Act I, Zurga(Nathan Gunn) does not recognize Leila(Nicole Cabell) veiled

Our young waiter at Rivers Restaurant, just across the street from the Civic Opera House, asked if we were going to see “ The Pearl Fishers” and when we said we were. he surprised us by mentioning that he just loves French opera.  I asked what it is he likes and he said it was the way the language sounds when sung.  This is an interesting, accurate and perceptive observation.  Each language of opera requires specific vocal features.  One description of the requirements for French romantic opera is that the tenor have essentially two voices; one, a floating sound and the other, a big, full, lyric sound.  We were curious to find out if Eric Cutler as Nadir would be the hard to find “French tenor” in this performance.

We like to attend the pre-opera presentation before each opera.  This night, the fascinating insights and specific operatic selections offered by Jesse Gram, Lyric’s Audience Education Manager, greatly enhanced our enjoyment of “ The Pearl Fishers”.  The opera, in three acts, was written by Georges Bizet and the libretto by Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon.  This was the first full-length opera written in1863 by the 25 year old Bizet and predated his most famous opera, Carmen, by 12 years.  Wynne Delacoma's program article states that “Despite its weak story line, the work contains inventive and achingly beautiful music including the enduringly popular baritone-tenor duet, “ Au fond du temple saint”.

Act I, Nadir(Eric Cutler) and Zurga(Nathan Gunn) pledge eternal friendship

This opera was Bizet's most successful apart from Carmen.  It premiered as, “ Les Pêcheurs de Perles," at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, September 29, 1863. London saw it under the title of " Leila," April 22, 1887, at Covent Garden; as " Pescatori di Perle" May 18, 1899 in Italy. The New York premiere was at the Metropolitan Opera House, January 11, 1896, with Calvé; and November 13, 1916, with Caruso. Lyric has produced it as “ The Pearl Fishers” only twice before, in 1966 and 1997.

Act II, Leila(Nicole Cabell) and Nadir(Eric Cutler) risk their lives by reuniting

The story is set in ancient, barbaric, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in a pearl divers’ encampment.  Pearl divers constantly risked their lives diving and they relied on the village priestess to be dedicated to praying for them.  The story is about Nadir (Eric Cutler), Zurga (Nathan Gunn) and Leila (Nicole Cabell).  In the first act, Nadir returns to his village just as the villagers are about to chose a leader.  Zurga is elected leader.  Nadir and Zurga who have been friends since childhood embrace, pledging loyalty to one another and promising not to allow their love for an exotic Brahmin priestess to come between them.  Leila, the Brahmin Priestess, is brought to the village and commits to following the rules of chastity and praying for the pearl fishers all day.  As the story progresses, it deals with timeless dilemmas such as, loyalty between friends and the betrayal of sacred vows.

Act III, High priest Nourabad (Bass-baritone, Christian Van Horn) prepares for the execution of Nadir(Eric Cutler) and Leila(Nicole Cabell)

The Pearl Fishers” contains within it continuously lyrical, romantic and just beautiful music.  The duets are gorgeous, Nadir and Zurga, Leila and Nadir, Leila and the French horn and more.  The stage filled with members of the village offers choruses that range from gentle and soft to loud and menacing.  Leila’s arias are a “tour de force”.  And the orchestral instruments have a special role, especially the harp and flute and the blend of orchestra and voices.

Act III, Leila(Nicole Cabell) pleads to Zurga(Nathan Gunn) to spare Nadir's life

In this production, we found the staging and costuming captivating and beautiful.  Each act brought a visual delight.  Our seat neighbors had seen the production in 1997 and commented that they liked the sets in this production better. The male voices were perfection (even with a rather ill Eric Cutler). We had certainly found the “French tenor”, and an outstanding one, at that.  Nicole Cabell as a beautiful Leila met the demands of the solos but the duets were irresistible.  That each of these artists is wonderful to look added even more to the performance.

Act III, Zurga(Nathan Gunn) tells Leila(Nicole Cabell) and Nadir(Eric Cutler) to flee as he has set fire to the pearl fishers encampment

The recurring theme from “ Au fond du temple saint” is heard at moments of tension and its beauty carries the listener through the opera and also echoed in my ears for hours after the opera ended.  This beautiful opera is rarely performed and this is a wonderful opportunity to enter the world of ancient Ceylon and lose oneself in a total experience long to be remembered.

Contact: or 312. 332. 2244 ext 5600
Monday, October 13-7:30 pm      Thursday, October 16 –2:00 pm
Sunday, October 19 – 2:00 pm    Wednesday, October 22 – 7:30 pm
Saturday, October 25 – 7:30 pm   Saturday, November 1 – 7:30 pm
Tuesday, November 4 –7:30

Photos: Dan Rest

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