Rarely performed Pearl Fishers at the Met

A new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles launches 2016!

Conjure this truth: Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), rarely performed completely but quite well known in tidbits and pieces, will have tallied by the end of its run this 2015-2016 season a tad more than three times the number of performances it had in its first landing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in November of 1916. For the record, it scored a total of three, count ‘em, three complete performances, actually four if, splitting hairs, one counts a matinee in 1896 when only Acts I and II were given as more or less a curtain raiser for Massenet’s verismo short La Navaraisse. Your call on this one.

It was an all-star cast at least at the opening night in ‘16: Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel, Giuseppe De Luca, and Léon Rothier. Happily it is an all-star cast in this ’16 too: Matthew Polenzani, Diana Damrau, Marius Kwiecien, and Nicolas Testé, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

Zurga and Nadir sing the famous duet from  The Pearl Fishers

Zurga and Nadir sing the famous duet from The Pearl Fishers

The well known tidbits and pieces of Pêcheurs include one of the more famous bromance duets in all opera: Nadir and Zurga’s Au fond du temple saint, well known and fetching enough for a woman a few seats to my right to be vocalizing along last night, and the heavenly tenor aria Je crois entendre encore, both in Act I. Mum this time, she apparently didn’t know the aria as well. Today’s stars face stiff competition in these selections: the likes of Caruso, McCormack, Gigli, Bjoerling, Gedda, Vanzo, and Kraus have recorded the aria, to name a few I can find quickly on my shelves, some pairing with equally famous baritones for the duet. Bjoerling and Merrill were my first on LP (originally released on 45s I think). For the record, there are other numbers of merit in Pêcheurs which, for various reasons, don’t seem to make their way into recital recordings by today’s singers.

Still, though productions of Les Pêcheurs de Perles have popped up over the years here (both the New York City Opera and the Chicago Lyric spring to mind) and abroad, France certainly, and though the complete opera has been well recorded commercially on easily available major labels, a good bit of advice for the well seasoned devotee is to grab this one while you can at the Met or in HD. It’s a long way to 2116.

The new production at hand is by Penny Woolcock, a cooperative effort by the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. The time of the action is not ancient times, rather only yesterday on the shore of a country on the Indian Ocean. A billboard, corrugated metal huts, bottled beer from the icebox, a television…totally civilized in other words.

But it really doesn’t matter. The social dynamic is relatively eternal: the populace obeys their leader Zurga who, with the help of Nourabad, a religious leader, retains a veiled virgin (Leïla) who, with her rituals and chants, protects the pearl fishers (they are led to believe) from storms, and thus from terrible economic disasters threatened by a wild sea. The rub here is that said virgin is none other than Zurga’s former love, an emotion unfortunately shared by Nadir, at one time Zurga’s best friend before he, Nadir, opted to leave town to chill out because of the intensity of the rivalry. Now, early Act I, Nadir has returned, let’s let bygones be bygones (hence the famous bromance duet) and move on.

Diana Damrau is Leila in  The Pearl Fishers

Diana Damrau is Leila in The Pearl Fishers

Neither recognizes Leïla through her veils, not, that is, until Nadir, who clearly has better vocal recognition than his bud, discovers the awful truth, awful because Leïla, as part of her sacred role, is sworn to celibacy and emotional impartiality. In the aforementioned heavenly tenor aria Nadir expresses his vivid memory of the sweetness of her voice. I tell you this because it’s approximately the whole first act, up to the only intermission. For a short opera the story does not move quickly.

Leila loves Nadir

Leila loves Nadir

Set designer Dick Bird, with lighting by Jen Schriever, projections designed by 59 Productions, and movement directed by Andrew Dawson create a plausible seaside shanty town with high rise apartments, perhaps resorts, tough to say, in the background. The effects this team has conjured are pretty cool too: during the short prelude to Act I, pearl divers swim gracefully to the ocean floor with a scenic magic missing from the Met’s new Rheingold; Zurga was right: the sea takes revenge when Leïla and Nadir transgress, an effect not comforting if you’re prone to anxiety dreams about tsunamis; when Zurga sets the village on fire at the opera’s finale, as a ‘distraction’ so that he, good guy underneath the unforgiving façade, can allow Leïla and Nadir to escape certain death, there is fire on stage and the orchestra pit fills with smoke.

But Zurga is not happy about this!

But Zurga is not happy about this!

Gianandrea Noseda whips the Met Orchestra up to a more energetic reading of the score than usually found on recordings. In fact, the confrontation between Leïla and Zurga even offers hints of the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José: Leïla’s Eh, bien, va, venge-toi donc, cruel! rings a familiar note.

Matthew Polenzani floats the high vocal lines of Nadir with ease; Marius Kwiecien rises to levels of jealous passion and revenge; Diana Damrau shows her inner tigress when pleading with Zurga for Nadir’s life; Nicolas Testé is a forceful Nourabad. Four characters. That’s it.

It's a lovely opera. And dare I, in this brief, nearly final paragraph, point out that the same cast, with an additional voice or two, could quite easily pull off Delibes’ lovely Lakmé? That certainly would be nice. And as long as we’ll consider reviving long buried neglected gems from the French repertory with plots in which West confronts East and the heroines, after saving the hero from certain death, expire by sitting beneath trees one ought not sit under, I’d put my oar in for Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. We have the singers today.

Performance date: January 4, 2016, suddenly the dead of winter.

Photos: Ken Howard

Les Pêcheurs de Perles is performed here in two acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about 2 and a half hours, including one long intermission between (as written) Act I and Acts II and III.

Incredibly cold, subzero wind chill out there the other night! Wow! The backlash from a warm Christmas.