New York City — Bizet’s gorgeous Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) was a moving experience at The Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday evening. It is graced with exceptional singers, one of our best conductors, and Bizet’s score that is laced with one beautiful melody after another. However, it is hampered by the restricting confines of the set, questionable direction and the unfortunate decision to move the action to a later time frame that might be the 1960s (notice the black-and-white rabbit-eared TV in Zurga’s study).
As with any resetting of an opera, “Why?” is the question. Did it bring any new insights? None I could fathom.
Bizet was only 24 when he wrote this score on a commission to a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. The latter was a prolific librettist, who usually worked with a partner (mostly with Jules Barbier). He wrote libretti for composers as diverse as Gounod and Meyerbeer. He also penned a French translation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Bizet only had a short time to write the score so some of the music came from previously composed and rejected efforts.
The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1863 but the critical response was poor. The opera was never staged again in Bizet’s brief lifetime. It has seen a resurgence that started in the late 20th century and now productions abound. Critics revised their first impression, mostly in retrospect, once Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen premiered 10 years later.
The plot is slim and a little on the creaky side, even for opera. Set on the Indian Ocean island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the opera is supposed to happen in “ancient times,” which is ancient indeed considering that archeological evidence goes back to 300,000 BP and possibly even to 500,000 BP.
The action opens on what should be a barren seashore with the remnants of a Hindu temple in the background. The villagers elect Zurga their leader by acclamation. His long-lost best friend, Nadir, picks this exact moment to return to the village. The two recall their love for the same woman and their oath to give her up. There is a tradition on the island to import an unknown and veiled virgin priestess to protect the fisherman in their dangerous profession. She arrives by boat and is veiled to protect her identity.
As luck would have it, Nadir recognizes her anyway as Leila, the very woman whom they both love. He cannot stay away and their love blossoms again. The High Priest catches them in an embrace and, with a furious Zurga’s support, sentences them to death by burning alive on a funeral pyre.
In a final twist, Zurga regrets his rash behavior and then notices a pearl around Leila’s neck that he once gave to her when she saved his life. He realizes that he must save them, and he hits upon a plan. He’ll burn down the entire village to distract the residents long enough to free the two miscreants and facilitate their escape. At the end, he remains alone on the seashore awaiting his fate.
One odd directorial snafu occurred when the villagers were informed that their entire town was engulfed in flames. No one ran off to rescue what they could. No, they just sauntered off stage as if they had an appointment and plenty of time to get there.
Criticism of the libretto was widespread, even by the authors. In some subsequent revisions, notably one prepared in 1886, the High Priest Nourabad witnesses Zurga’s actions and denounces him with his favorite thing, a death sentence, which is immediately carried out by a stabbing delivered by one of the villagers. One forlorn version has a final trio added by the composer Benjamin Godard.
As the conflicted Zuniga, who has an anger management problem, the Met had to use a tag team. On opening night, Mariusz Kwiecień withdrew after Act I. In a scenario right out of the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve, the understudy Alexander Birch Elliott hurried into costume and proceeded to sing the second and third acts to great acclaim. This was his Met debut to boot. It just shows you the depth of the Met’s bench. He will sing all subsequent performances, including the one I attended, and demonstrated that all of the praise heaped on him was well-deserved.
In the role of Nadir, Zuniga’s dearest friend and rival for the love of a woman back in days of yore, was graciously sung by the remarkable lyric tenor Javier Camarena. His is the perfect French-style lyric tenor: a creamy sound, virile but without Italianate overtones. He has the ability to sing some super-soft lyrical lines. But he missed the mark in his first-act aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” which should float from beginning to end.
The two male protagonists gave a lovely rendition of the only famous music from this usually neglected opera, the duet “Au fond du temple saint.” The only misstep here was directorial. The justifiably famous duet takes an evil turn in a middle recitativo accompagnato section, the old rivalry is rekindled and the two momentarily return to a state of enmity. They both sing the words “Ta main repousse ma main!” (“Your hand repulses mine!”). It is a dramatic moment that foreshadows the rest of the opera. The only problem in this production is that they are on opposite sides of the stage. No one’s “hand” is anywhere close to the other’s. A silly mistake, what with supertitles.
As the imported and unknown virgin goddess, Leila, soprano Pretty Yende sang with precision and with great clarity in all of the coloratura passages, but she missed an opportunity with them as well. All of this virtuoso singing has meaning, but she sang them more like vocalization than expressing the emotions that unleashes such a display.
Nicolas Testé gave a chilling performance as Nourabad, the rigid by-the-book high priest who takes more joy in handing down death sentences that he does tending to his flock.
As is the case with opera productions these days, they travel internationally almost as much as the singers. This Pearl Fishers is a revival of Penny Woolcock’s 2015 production, originally created for the English National Opera. Also, as we see more and more often, it depended on the creative use of projections.
The overture is staged with a scrim with acrobatic divers swimming down to the ocean floor using flying mechanisms. It was extremely effective, and the rising bubbles added to the realism. It was truly beautiful to behold. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the music director for The Dallas Opera, delivered a peaceful performance of the overture’s music that complimented the graceful swimming of the divers.
The problem is that these Pearl Fishers didn’t pick up anything, let alone a pearl-sporting oyster. They just swam down and back up. Unfortunately, one lone straggler swam down much later on in the opera when the projection was of the sky instead of the required body of water.
Now, let’s talk about Dick Bird’s bizarre set. It was a crowded yet vacant construct that tried to be a pair of docks separated by a small inlet. We didn’t realize this until, much to our surprise, the boat bearing the requisite virgin priestess turned into it. Invisible to the audience—at least where I sat—there was a small footbridge. It must have been more visible to seats higher up in the theater. There was also a huge highway-style billboard that hung in back of the structure. If it had any meaning, I couldn’t discern it.
The effect was a congested stage with little room for the lead singers to maneuver, let alone room for the Met’s superb chorus.
The time period was vague, but certainly not “ancient times.” Kevin Pollard’s costumes were a mishmash of eras. The villagers were in traditional Ceylonese drapery that was hardly beachwear. The office of Zuniga, who is elected the leader of the village right after the curtain rises, looked like many floors of storage for old newspapers. But all was forgiven by the amazing projections that created the monstrous thunderstorm. (Later, Zuniga removes his shirt, revealing a Barihunk bod, and dries off from the drenching rain—but his hair magically remained dry in the downpour.)
The Goddess’ supposedly-in-ruins shrine was on a higher level and only consisted of a laminated and backlit Madonnaesque statue. The poor sacred virgin didn’t even have a bed, let alone the privacy of a cubicle—a poor display of hospitality if ever there was one.
The two docks were quite close together and looked vaguely like folding stadium seating. Thus, the absolutely wonderful cast and chorus had to struggle mightily to deliver such a magnificent performance in such constrained circumstances.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s forward motion on the score prevented it from lapsing into sentimentality and kept us on the edge of our seats. There were times when the singers lagged a bit behind, but Villaume was having none of it. This score can be inadvertently rubatoed to a standstill by indulgent singers who luxuriate in Bizet’s wondrous melodies. Dynamics were just as precisely built so that the big moment was truly a standout.
The takeaway? In spite of the set and some misguided directorial decisions, this is a musically marvelous performance thanks to an excellent cast, chorus, orchestra and conductor.