For an opera experience to be first-rate, it does not have to be perfect in every single detail (perfection of that sort is perhaps impossible), but there has to be a coming together successfully, even memorably, of all the different forces that make it a whole work of art – good singing, vivid orchestral accompaniment, attractive production and perhaps most crucially of all, dramatic authenticity which carries an often creaky plot to something like transcendence. It was just such an experience at tonight’s performance of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, by Kansas City Lyric Opera.

Leila's attendants prepare her chamber
© Elise Bakketun
This was Andrew Sinclair’s deftly imagined version for San Diego Opera, which brought out the attractiveness of Bizet’s “other opera” and deepened its telling and thus its hold over us. Indeed one of Sinclair's aims was to make the characters more three-dimensional and in this, he succeeded magnificently. Nourabad the high priest, played slyly by Christian Zaremba, was only superficially representative of worthiness and right religion. It was quite clear he was a lecher and it was in coming back to seduce Leïla that he surprised the lovers – but that too could be turned to his advantage. Sean Panikkar was in good voice and tumultuous Heathcliffean passion as Nadir; Maeve Höglund’s soprano was gracious and limpid as Leïla, her strong persona belying her objectification as chaste talisman. Announced as suffering from an illness, she was apparently not adversely affected – the trick of priestly servants presenting her with a drink allowed her to regroup between scenes.
Leila (Maeve Höglund) begs Zurga (John Moore) to spare her lover’s life
© Elise Bakketun

Most revealing of all from a dramatic point of view was John Michael Moore as Zurga. His presence was powerful, his baritone commanding, and the emotional and moral complexity of his position quite movingly portrayed. We saw his torture and the magnificence of the offence suffered to his ego by the fact that Leïla loved his friend enough to offer to die for him. His turn towards evil in striving to possess Leïla was intense and inevitable; the awakening of his better nature was real, though, and made his eventual death moving in a way I didn’t expect.

The orchestra were on excellent form under the baton of Antony Walker. Noticeable form the start was their responsiveness and lively pace. The whole did not drag for an instant and the long first act (90 minutes) did not feel so at all. The playing thrillingly mirrored the violent loves and violent ends of the plot. All of these good things went with a production which was unashamedly fabulous. We worry, don’t we, in bien pensant post-modern circles, that Western operatic perceptions of the exotic East are hopelessly outdated, condescending and even imperialist – an ethnographic embarrassment. So what to do? Employ Sinclair and Zandra Rhodes, clearly.

The entrance of priestess Leila (Maeve Höglund, center) is an occasion for dancing
© Elise Bakketun

Rhodes’ flamboyantly colourful sets were artsy, quirky, and for those who think about these things, cleverly referential. Matisse in style, surely – those nudes of in-the-moment joy all over the temple columns, those splashy palms. There were hints of Gauguin too in lurid Tahitian excess, and of Henri Rousseau in the massive impenetrability of jungle backdrops; late 19th-century art also fetishised the Eastern other and the “primitive” and Rhodes treated us to a plenitude of squiggles, lines, shells and patterns evoking coral – hieroglyphs of the otherness Frenchmen have liked to depict. Rhodes might even have been using them ironically, but at any rate, these motifs stood out and were gorgeous.

John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance, choreographed the movement and dance, an integral part of this production and a definite enhancement. This was a tribe whose passions turned from veneration to violence on a pinhead, who vocalised and enacted their every fear and impulse. The excitability was potent in the singing of the choruses, male and female, but also in the staging; the chorus' circling of the veiled Leïla initially as a threat spoke of their capacity for volatility before anything had really occurred to disturb them. I wondered, initially, whether would I find the dances a distraction, but on the contrary, they were an asset: from fiery temple dancing to an execution ritual with banging of staffs and sticks and charivari with animal masks, they were a physical overflow of both the joyous and darker passions of a people. Transmitting passions – and perhaps recognising our own too – is at the heart of a good production, and that was effectively achieved tonight.