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The nice thing about modernity is, thanks to things like books and TV and the Internet, we can actually know what people in Sri Lanka are like: how they live, worship, their system of government, and so on. We don’t have to just make shit up like Georges Bizet did. His opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) was set in faraway Ceylon, where the bloodthirsty natives stone fornicators, make supplications to Brahma (though 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists), and, in this production, dress in saffron pajamas from a Ten Thousand Villages clearance sale. You can’t really hold it against the Virginia Opera though. Ceylon was just a stock exotic locale for Bizet, and we know Bizet liked his locales like his women—-the sultrier the better.

The story centers on tribal chief Zurga and his buddy Nadir. They promise to each other never to let a woman get in the way of their friendship, and manage to keep that promise for nearly 20 minutes before, well, a woman shows up. This is pre-Carmen though, and the femme here (a veiled “virgin priestess”) is not quite as fatale. She is, however, mysterious and dangerous, by virtue of getting caught in a love triangle between a nice tenor and a jealous baritone with the authority to sentence people to death.

It’s all the more tragic because Chad Johnson, as Nadir and David Pershall, as Zurga, have a great duet (“In the Depths of the Temple”) in the first act that they don’t quite live up to later on. On his own, Johnson projects well but has a kind of metallic tinge to his timbre that’s slightly grating. He’s best when supporting the warmer Pershall and, from offstage in another nice duet, soprano Heather Buck. The reliable Buck, playing the priestess, was equally good in the Virginia Opera’s bold and justifiably hyped production of Philip Glass’s Orphée last season. Nathan Stark rounds out the cast as a priest with a particularly nasally bass. Or maybe he’s just the guy who speaks the best French. The orchestra is led by Anne Manson, whose conducting is sometimes a bit plodding for Buck’s arias, but otherwise bright and lively.

Director Tazewell Thompson, having pushed back his delayed Mary T. and Lizzy K. for Arena Stage, has pulled together a modest but clever production with a cool, uneven stage design. It’s suitable for smaller companies like the Virginia Opera (and it’s available for rent! artistic director Robin Thompson helpfully notes for any other companies reading the program). It cuts a few corners—-there’s no burning pyre in the final act, but there is a fog machine. The sentiment comes across just as well though, when Zurga has a change of heart and lets the happy couple escape by burning down all of his villagers’ homes. Ah, the things we do for love.

The Pearl Fishers closes on Sunday, October 14 at 2:00 pm at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. In French with English surtitles. $48-$98. (888) 945-2468.

Photo by David A. Beloff