The Met Presents Bizet’s Pearl Fishers for the First Time in a Century

United StatesUnited States  Bizet, Les Pêcheurs de perles: Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 4.1.2016. (RP)

Zurga: Mariusz Kwiecien
Nadir:  Matthew Polenzani
Leïla; Diana Damrau
Nourabad: Nicolas Testé

Production: Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera
Director: Penny Woolcock
Set Designer: Dick Bird
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever
Projection Design: 59 Productions
Movement Director: Andrew Dawson

On New Year’s Eve, Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles returned to the Metropolitan Opera after an absence of nearly 100 years. Enrico Caruso was in the cast the last time around. The Met is an outlier here, as the opera shows up with some regularity in other houses, including those in Seattle and Zurich this season. The Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, gave soprano Diana Damrau, a Met favorite, carte blanche to choose an opera to showcase her manifold talents, and she opted for Les Pêcheurs de perles. Leïla is a role that she has sung at the National Theatre Mannheim in Germany, and one perfectly suited to her beautiful, lyric coloratura voice. The happy result was this production, musically, and at times visually, mesmerizing.

The plot is often derided, but love triangles are central to many an opera. This one brings to mind Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera: in both there is a deep bond between the two male protagonists. Childhood friends Nadir and Zurga fall for the same beautiful maiden, but forsake her to preserve their friendship. Nadir’s heart however, never stops burning with a secret passion for Leïla who, as fate would have it, is delivered to him by boat. She arrives as a priestess to protect the island to which he has just returned from storms and other evils, but, unfortunately, she is bound by a vow of chastity. If she honors it, she gets the best pearl found that year; if not, she dies. Love prevails, but the couple is immediately discovered. At first outraged by Nadir’s betrayal, Zurga relents when he sees the pearl that the doomed Leïla requests be sent to her mother. It was the same pearl that he had given a young girl, now standing before him, when she saved his life long ago. Zurga has the power to pardon, but public opinion dictates otherwise, so he sets the town on fire as a subterfuge, allowing them to escape.

This is a co-production of the Met and the English National Opera, where it first premiered. Penny Woolcock has updated the action to contemporary times, but 21st- century Asia is still an exotic and, in many ways, timeless place. Modernity was evidenced by a few electrical poles and lights as well a large billboard advertising the local pearls, but life in Southeast Asian floating villages, where buildings are perched on stilts above the water, is not so different from the Ceylon where Bizet set the opera. It was a stroke of genius to have swimmers diving to harvest the precious pearls during the overture. The Met stage was transformed into a giant aquarium, and seldom has such a simple device so perfectly created an atmosphere. The sea was central to Woolcock’s concept, with the swelling waves of Act II creating an almost hypnotic effect as the lovers are reunited and subsequently discovered; and the act ended with the projection of a tsunami-like wave threatening the village. The set creaked ominously (and loudly) during an Act I scene change and inspiration was in short supply in Act III  ̶  did Zurga live in an old warehouse or a repository for recycled newspapers? It was hard to tell but of no moment since the first two acts were visual magic.

Most of us came to this opera by way of the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” in full-voiced recordings by the likes of Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill, or perhaps Bryn Terfel and Andrea Bocelli, among the many other famous tenor-baritone pairings available. Those full-voiced renditions were thrilling, but Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien sang with such soft, tender tone, their voices perfectly matched, that the aural memories were erased. It was in many ways Polenzani’s evening; he sang splendidly and floated soft pianissimos that would make Montserrat Caballé fans stand up and take notice. Kwiecien might have been ailing  ̶  there were a few noticeable catches in his voice, as well as phrases where it suddenly faded  ̶  but these were of little moment. The role of Zurga suits him.

Praising Polenzani in no means diminishes Damrau’s triumph in the role of Leïla. She was exotically beautiful in her orange-colored sari. Her disrobing by Nadir down to an equally lovely golden skirt, was demure, but tinged with eroticism. Vocally, Leïla provided Damrau with ample opportunity to display her lustrous tone, shimmering high notes and graceful coloratura. The icing on the cake, was her singing of the melody of the famous duet in the final act. One never really tires of hearing it, especially when sung by a voice such as hers.

It was the conducting of Gianandrea Noseda, however, that made the musical enchantment possible. This score has its weak points, and he did his utmost to minimize them. The Met orchestra played with a radiant sheen and transparency that permitted these lyrical voices to be heard and the emotions that they conveyed felt. The instrumental solos, especially those by the flute and horn, were played with the utmost sensitivity. The Met chorus was marvelous, not for the thrilling, stentorian sounds that it is capable of delivering, but rather the colorings and phrasing which it employed. The villagers’ prayer, “Brahma divin Brahma!”, sung as a violent tropical storm erupts after the lovers have been discovered, was superb.

For many long-time Met goers, the box office is notorious for its inflexibility, so it came as a pleasant surprise that a ticketing error was detected by an alert usher and fixed within seconds by a man wielding a laptop. He added with a smile that he gave me better seats than I had purchased, and so he did. (The Met has “an extremely limited number of press tickets” available.) Such customer centricity merits a mention.

This is a fine production, so if you are in New York City, try to see it. There are seats to be had, and that’s a pity.

Rick Perdian