Having an opera as near-perfect as "Carmen" on your resume tends to make everything else you do look somewhat pale by comparison. That can certainly be said for "The Pearl Fishers," an earlier opera that Bizet wrote in 1863 and which doesn't really compare to his later masterpiece, but it's not fair to hold that against him. True, the work's rather wooden libretto leaves most of the characters seeming flat and the pacing leaves plenty to be desired, but there is lots of ravishing vocal writing, including one celebrated big tune for tenor and baritone that leaps from the stage.
That tune has been included in many compilations of opera's greatest hits, but the rest of the score of "The Pearl Fishers" is rarely heard, making this work the right kind of material for Opera Boston, which dedicates itself to spotlighting unduly neglected corners of the repertory. The company's vivid and airy new production, directed by James Marvel, opened last night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and all three scheduled performances sold out before the curtain went up.
The plot centers on Zurga, the head fisherman, and his old friend Nadir, who many years ago both loved the same woman, Leila, who suddenly returns as a priestess, naturally, but still rekindles old passions as well as fits of jealous rage. Marvel's staging, his first for the company, has a fanciful touch and a vibrant look, saturated with bright colors that seem about right for an opera set in ancient Ceylon.
The production boasts plenty of dancing and shadow puppetry, usually put to attractive and sometimes poetic ends, though it relies a bit too heavily on lofting its characters into the air on wires. Opening night also had one scenery malfunction, where Zurga's big moment at the start of Act III was literally eclipsed by a sheer curtain that swung closed in front of him. Botched attempts to fix the situation drew giggles from the crowd just as the scene was supposed to be heating up.
As Zurga, the baritone Robert Honeysucker took it all in stride, singing the role with dignity, substance, and plenty of vocal heft. Tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan was generally solid as Nadir, with some long stretches of elegant singing, though this challenging role also took him into less flattering portions of his upper range. Soprano Jee Hyun Lim gave an engrossing, dramatically committed performance as Leila, though there was some strain in her top notes as well. George Cordes was robust as the high priest Nourabad.
The chorus sounded less polished than usual, but conductor Gil Rose kept things on track in the pit, making sure that Bizet's beautifully lyrical score, with its bright splashes of color, was well represented for its moment in the sun.