Georges Bizet was just 24 years old when his opera, “The Pearl Fishers” (“Les pecheurs de perles”) — now in a new-to-Chicago production at Lyric Opera — had its premiere in Paris in 1863. Of course it would be “Carmen,” his masterwork of 1875 (which debuted three months before the composer died of a heart attack at the age of 36) that would easily eclipse the earlier work, though he did not live long enough to revel in the glory of that success.

‘THE PEARL FISHERS’
Recommended
When: Through Dec. 10
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $69 – $299
Info: www.lyricopera.org
Run time: 2 hours
and 25 minutes with one intermission

As it happens, these operas share a classic theme, with two men passionately in love with the same woman leading to a tragic end for one of them. Of course this being Bizet, the story unspools with one glorious melodic line after another, including a series of arias that fully showcase the voices of its principals, and choral sequences of great beauty. The Lyric cast succeeds on every level on the vocal front, and is backed by the transcendent playing of the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.

Marina Rebeka is Leila and Mariusz Kwiecień is Zurga in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of George Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” | Todd Rosenberg Photography

To be sure, there also are significant differences between the two Bizet operas. Rather than the bullfighting arena and gypsy culture of Spain, “The Pearl Fishers,” with its libretto by Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon, is set in an exotic seashore community of 19th century Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), amid the ruins of a Hindu temple. It is a place where pearl fishermen risk their lives every time they dive deeply into the sea to retrieve their precious catch, and where rituals to appease evil spirits are observed with great fervor.

The opera begins as the community chooses Zurga (Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) to be their king. But almost immediately comes the unexpected arrival of his childhood friend, Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani, the Evanston-bred Ryan Center alumnus), and they quickly fall into a revery of the time when, years earlier, they traveled to the temple of Brahma and both became wildly enchanted by the beautiful young Leila (Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka), yet vowed to forget her for the sake of their friendship.

And then it happens: A veiled virgin is brought before Zurga by Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma (Italian bass Andrea Silvesrtrelli), and she is to oversee the annual customary prayer for the safety of the pearl fishers. If she remains faithful to her sacred oath as a priestess she will receive the most beautiful pearl found. If not, she will die. Sacred love wins out and her passion for Nadir will soon overcome her sense of duty, igniting a series of disastrous consequences.

The Lyric production, created for the San Diego Opera, and directed by Andrew Sinclair, is something of a mish-mash of unreconciled styles. The fabulously colorful exotica of set and costume designer Dame Zandra Rhodes (an icon of the British fashion world during the 1970s) has a Pop Art appeal that doesn’t quite synch with the music, although it is deftly muted at times by Ron Vodicka’s lighting. And choreographer John Malashock’s choreography tries hard but verges on the seriously kitschy. But the opera (sung in French with projected English supertitles) is anchored by such beautiful voices and impressive acting (despite a rather antiquated libretto) that these distractions can easily be overlooked.

The intense friendship duet (“Au fond du temple saint”) between Zurga and Nadir was a magical blending of baritone and tenor voices, and were it not for a brief announcement at intermission explaining that Kwiecien was not feeling well, but would complete the performance, it is doubtful anyone would have noticed.

Sung from a bed strewn with rose petals, Rebeka’s bravura rendering of Leila’s long and ardor-driven aria (“Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre“) was magnificent, ideally capturing her enduring passion for Nadir, which is then fully realized in the pair’s erotically charged duet (“Léïla! Léïla!…Dieu puissant, le voilà!“).

The feverish urgency Rebeka brought to the dishonored goddess’ plea to Zurga to show mercy for her beloved Nadir, while offering up her own life instead, was masterful, and made it clear why Zurga’s jealousy was only inflamed. And Kwiecien’s final aria of remorse and fiery self-sacrifice was sung with great power and pathos.

The 52-person chorus, under chorus master Michael Black, brought a gravitas and anxiousness to each of the scenes in which the community gathered in fear, reverence and outrage. Bravo to them, and cheers for Bizet.

Marina Rebeka as Leila and Andrea Silvestrelli as Nourabad in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “The Pearl Fishers.” | Todd Rosenberg Photography