Met's thrilling Elektra

A brand new Elektra by the late Patrice Chéreau at the Met

Richard Strauss’s Elektra is one of my favorite operas, which, I suppose, says a lot about me. It says that I very much love complex operas (no pun intended), intricately yet swiftly plotted, set to emotionally charged music intimately wedded to an insightful text, thus strong characters who, hopefully, in performance, are matched by strong interpreters both on stage (and on the podium).

I found all this last night at the premiere performance of the Met’s new Elektra, our local realization of the late Patrice Chéreau’s production, which also resides in five other major opera houses. For the Met, it follows Chéreau’s iconic staging of Janáček’s Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) in 2009, also the occasion of the Met debut of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted last night.

Nina Stemme as the crazed Elektra

Nina Stemme as the crazed Elektra

Musically, this new Elektra is a hands-down winner. The title role is solidly essayed by the dare I say great Nina Stemme, who continues to impress in the most challenging roles in the soprano repertory. Her commitment to the extremes of the character, which, believe me, lie on the outer fringe of sanity, are met with both musicianship and abandon. In this Stemme always wins the championship-level contest between her and Strauss’s exceptionally large orchestra, cranked up to the max when necessary by Mr. Salonen.

She is ‘mothered’ by the great Waltraud Meier, who brings, under Chéreau’s conception, a softer, more reconciliatory, though basically no less troubled Klytämnestra. Meier has a way of bringing many extra things to all of her interpretations, even to roles such as Venus, Fricka and Waltraute. I cherish her Kundry and Isolde as exquisites portraits.

A little motherly advice for the needy Elektra

A little motherly advice for the needy Elektra

Meier’s Klytämnestra, like a CEO, is still always in control of the world around her, but willing to break the silence between her and her justifiably estranged and enraged daughter Elektra. As staged, theirs are not just stand and deliver performances, but rather a nuanced discourse between troubled souls. Subtitles projected onto the rear side walls facilitate comprehension of their issues.

Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis is ably sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, whose bright soprano also rises above the din.

Eric Owens gives a richly sung, deeply intoned Orest, the long awaited sibling-avenger, but dramatically on the stiff side. He is, as directed I guess, emotionally detached from virtually everything else but the ‘deed,’ which, not to give anything away, is to murder his mother Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth for their ambush of Agamemnon, her husband, with an axe to the head while he’s taking a bath (not shown, thankfully). He was just freshening up after his return from the Trojan War.

I guess I gave it away.

Burkhard Ulrich makes his Met debut as Aegisth. Many of the Maids have traveled about with the production. Standouts are Roberta Alexander (welcome back), Andrea Hill, and Bonita Hyman. Susan Neves, as the Overseer is also significant.

Elektra still not happy, even after the revenge is carried out

Elektra still not happy, even after the revenge is carried out

I have heard many fine conductors (Schippers, Böhm, Leinsdorf, Levine, to name four) lead the forces of Elektra at the Met (several others on recording too). Esa-Pekka Salonen is now a welcome addition to that list. Salonen is not willing to sacrifice volume, and goodness knows it gets loud, or slow the propulsion at the expense of orchestral detail, phrases, nuances which kept my ear intrigued throughout. And the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is as excellent as ever. This is a powerful, dynamic performance of a very powerful score. Bravi!

Chéreau passed away in soon after this production was launched in 2013, but from the playbook it’s directed here by Vincent Huguet in his Met debut. Chéreau brings to this opera a sort of stylized naturalism, such as he brought to his controversial centenary Ring production at Bayreuth, his Lulu in Paris, and From the House of the Dead here. These are ones I’ve seen either on video or in the house. His singers are constantly moving. Elektra’s intention that Klytämnestra’s blood shall be that which must flow is visually realized by her mother’s body dragged out to be displayed on a slab. Not all went loose and natural last night. Perhaps things will tighten as the team gets into the run.

And perhaps the technical flaws will be worked out too. When the curtain opened I thought oh dear these sets are just as ugly as that awful cardboard brown Tosca, which, you’ll recall, the Met replaced the sumptuous and much loved Franco Zeffirelli production with. Lo and behold, the cardboard brown sets for this new Elektra are by Richard Peduzzi, same fellow responsible for the Tosca. Right then and there I regretted caving into the impulse to purchase the DVD Chéreau Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera Shop prior to the performance (same production of course, lighting by Dominique Bruguière and costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise, filmed at Aix de Provence in 2013). But as the evening played out, Salonen’s gripping conducting, Meier and Pieczonka in their roles, plus others, convinced me to keep it. Funny thing though: Peduzzi also designed the sets for Janáček’s From the House of the Dead that season (2009) which, I remember, were perfectly apt in every way musically and dramatically for that opera.

Herein lies the rub: the color scheme of the Elektra sets are a nightmare for a synesthetic. The music is emphatically not shades of beige under bright lights. Viewing the DVD of the filmed performance of Chéreau's Elektra, which I did the next morning, one sees a much darker, grayish hue to the scenery, far more in line with the color of the music, suggesting that Peduzzi’s sets for the Janáček work in large measure because of the lighting. The mood of the Met’s Elektra is compromised by the brightness of the lighting.

Also, for the record, the amplified chorus of courtiers heard from behind the walls at the end of the opera is too loud.

Otherwise it this is an Elektra you will not soon forget. Happily I say again: Run, do not walk!

Reviewed performance date: April 14, 2016, Opening night of the new production.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Elektra is performed here in one act. The running time of the HD performance is just about one and three quarter hours; there is no intermission.

Enjoy! No overcoat on the walk to the car last night…heaven!

JRS

Roberto Devereux first time at the Met

Roberto Devereux is a must-see at the Met

There are six good reasons to run (not walk) to the Met to catch the new production of Donizetti’s infrequently performed drama Roberto Devereux.

First of all, it represents the Met at its best, which in my mind is always a good thing. Sir David McVicar’s direction is taut and engaged; his setting is elegant but at the same time to a degree foreboding. Though dark, the sets nicely frame the royals and courtiers, all regally costumed by Moritz Junge and tastefully accented by lighting designer Paule Constable. The musical and dramatic contributions by the principals are often spectacular, never the least bit routine, while the courtiers are interestingly, sometimes casually omnipresent throughout, coming together as needed for their choral contributions as the events unfold.

Elegant sets for new  Roberto Devereux

Elegant sets for new Roberto Devereux

Then second, from the opening curtain mezzo Elīna Garanča (as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham) is vocally on fire. Always a fan, I find her voice here to have a new richness and freedom, added to which she is convincingly torn in several directions as the plot twists and turns. Her duet with Matthew Polenzani at the end of Act I (as written) is exquisite. Brava! Don’t miss Garanča.

Sara, rival of Queen Elizabeth in  Roberto Devereux

Sara, rival of Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux

Third: Garanča is matched dramatically by Sondra Radvanovsky (as Elisabetta, Queen of England), who, this season, a first for the Met, completed Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Trilogy’ (the other operas are Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda). In Devereux one is struck by the totality of Radvanovsky’s commitment to creating a believable aged monarch who foolishly dotes on a younger man, yet who becomes vengeful when the most probable outcome of this relationship, namely that he loves another woman much younger than she, is revealed. Elisabetta’s gradual mental and physical collapse is well portrayed: I found Radvanovsky often gripping to watch on stage, especially at the opera’s conclusion. And she is able to span the significant vocal range of her role with relative ease. Don’t miss Radvanovsky.

Elizabeth and Roberto

Elizabeth and Roberto

Fourth, always important, the guys are great too: Matthew Polenzani is the unfortunate Roberto, unfortunate because by the end of the opera he has compromised his former love (Sara), betrayed his friend (Nottingham), and more than disappointed his Queen (Elisabetta). He probably also has credit card debt. So for all this he is beheaded (happily not shown here). Polenzani’s essay of the Tower of London Scene is eloquent and a lesson in bel canto. It’s the long solo in the second part of the evening, though not indicated by any big change of sets. Likewise Marius Kwiecien, as Nottingham, Sara’s husband, veers from being Roberto’s true friend to his worst enemy. Kwiecien’s transformation is effective: he is truly menacing in the second part.

Elizabeth awaits death as Roberto is executed

Elizabeth awaits death as Roberto is executed

Others in the cast include Brian Downen as Cecil, Yohan Yi as a Page, and Paul Corona as Nottingham’s servant.

The fifth reason is that the new Roberto Devereux is under the masterful musical direction of Maurizio Benini. Yes it’s Donizetti, not Verdi, but by this point in his career, 1837, two years after Lucia, but before La favorite and his other Paris operas, he was composing with a sure hand. Kudos to the Met for bringing the Tudor trilogy back to New York.

The sixth reason? Well, as my dear friend Dick often remarks, “You never know when you’ll see this one again!” On that note, seize the moment! T'is the season!

Review performance date: March 28, 2016, the second performance in the Met’s history.

Photos: Ken Howard

Roberto Devereux is performed here in two parts: Act I and Act II together, then Act III follows a single intermission.Enjoy! April showers bring May flowers!

JRS

Madama Butterfly at the Met

Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera to be telecast in HD

Firsts are memorable: first adult tooth, first kiss, first paycheck…it’s a long list. For me, Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is memorable not only because it is memorable in and of itself but because, in 2006, it also was the first offering of the Peter Gelb era, which brought us the Met in HD, now in its tenth season.

The Met's magnificent  Madama Butterfly

The Met's magnificent Madama Butterfly

This to-be-telecast Butterfly stars Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who, of late, has had newsworthy moments in Puccini’s arena: two seasons ago she stepped in at the very last minute to sing Mimi for a matinee telecast of La Bohème after singing Madama Butterfly the evening before; this season she starred in a mostly sizzling new Manon Lescaut with Roberto Alagna, who stepped in at the very last minute to sing Des Grieux. He appears with her again here as Pinkerton (as scheduled).

Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Opolais is a wonderful singer, vocally perfect, I would say, for Butterfly. I very much look forward to her Rusalka next season. She is an attractive singer too, perfect, I would say, for Mimi and Manon Lescaut and countless other operas in which it’s important to be young and attractive. But the HD Manon Lescaut made one aware that Opolais does not often relax the intensity of her gaze nor make frequent eye contact. In other words, she does not give the look one expects from one in love. This and the Minghella production as well give the relationship between Butterfly and Pinkerton a certain chill from the very beginning. The music of the extended love duet in Act I is passionate but tender: a very vulnerable and trusting Butterfly is surrendering out of love her childhood to him in what looks, at least to her, like a good arrangement. But through much of this scene the direction has her wandering around the stage.

Opolais adds some interesting touches which may or may not have been in the playbook from the first seasons. She clutches her stomach at times, doubles down, perhaps reflecting a lingering hysterical reaction from the trauma of her father’s suicide, as played out in a dream sequence during the interlude that precedes Act III. She faces her own terminal moments with a mix of resolve, determination and honor. Opolais admirably rises to the big moments of the score, particularly at the ends of the later Acts. Only a psychologist would nitpick the eye contact thing. All in all one walks away impressed.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna again, as in Manon Lescaut, sings with a youthful ring. His Pinkerton is not, as sometimes staged, the sloppy American navy man on shore for a good time, but rather more of a gentleman, later clearly, in Act III, struck down by the ramifications of his short sighted and selfish actions.

Dwayne Croft essays the role of Sharpless in fine voice. His reactions to the events guide our own. Maria Zifchak is a supportive and strong Suzuki; Stefan Szkafarowsky’s Bonze is threatening and forceful; Tony Stevenson’s Goro is more or less omnipresent; Yunpeng Wang’s noble and sensitive Yamadori would have been a good catch. Edyta Kulczak is Kate Pinkerton.

Karel Mark Chichon gives Puccini’s marvelous score both detail and ample room to breathe.

Madama Butterfly is high up on my list of the top 25 operas. It never ceases to move me. For the record, Renata Scotto's Butterfly in 1977 was one of the most intense performances I'd ever seen, as is her EMI recording from 1966.

Reviewed performance date: March 17, 2016.

Photos: 2006 production by Ken Howard; 2016 soloists by Marty Sohl.

Madama Butterfly is performed here in three acts; the running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

 Enjoy! Spring arrived today. Ignore the snow!

JRS

Met has a hot Manon Lescaut

The Met’s new Manon Lescaut is hot!!!

Most of the time.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which premiered earlier this February, is conceived by Sir Richard Eyre as a tale of frustrated love in the dark days following the fall of France in the Second World War.

Edgy German soldiers are a constant presence; the French citizens, students, ladies and gentlemen try as best they can to go about their business. Particularly evocative of the period is the grand railroad station of Amiens (Act I) at which stops the train carrying the beautiful Manon Lescaut, still young and a bit uncertain, but sexy and alluring nonetheless.

The sets too evoke the period in other ways. The station’s interior wall, proscenium-high, forms the backdrop to a lower street level. Its light grey shade gives the scene the tint of a black and white war film, Casablanca comes to mind for reasons set forth below, its effect enhanced by period costumes of Fotini Dimou and lighting by Peter Mumford. A long staircase leads down from the walkways above the tracks, which are hidden from our view; at stage level bubbles the local color: a small outdoor café to the left, crowded with students and other sorts milling about, and a tall swanky hotel to the right. It’s a cool effect. More on the sets later.

Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Kristine Opolais, as Manon, does not disappoint in any relevant category: she is attractive, supple in movement, a perceptive, extraverted actor and, important in opera, a fine singer. Her character runs the gamut from a to some degree shy and uncertain young lady to a woman in full control of her ‘powers’ as a beauty queen (though not in the literal sense of a Miss Universe, thank goodness). Perhaps she is a film star or a model: Sir Richard’s production has what appears to be a photo shoot arranged by Geronte in Act II. But from this glitzy peak it’s all downhill. Opolais gives an exquisite rendition of Manon’s final scene. Brava!!

Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Newsworthy for this new production is that tenor Roberto Alagna saved the day, filling the vacancy caused by Jonas Kaufmann’s very last minute cancelation. Alagna re-studied the part of Des Grieux (he had more or less learned it in 2006, but the production (in Italy) was withdrawn); in a remarkably brief period of time, two weeks and change, he brought it triumphantly to the Met’s stage, the first in his long career. Alagna remains in excellent shape both vocally and physically, in fact I’d venture to say his Des Grieux recalled his best artistry from years ago. He sings well, bright, youthful, expressive, believable, and, as is always his gold standard, he acts the part of a young Des Grieux sincerely.

Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

As a heads up: the Le Havre scene (Act III, Scene I here) is particularly treacherous and taxing for the tenor: the singing must be loud, the vocal line is high, and the dramatic situation is desperate. Keep your fingers crossed.

Also in the cast are Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut, Zach Borichevsky as Edmondo, a student in Act I (I’ll bet he’s also a member of the crowd in Act III, Scene I) and Brindley Sherratt as Geronte de Ravoir, Manon’s sugar daddy in Act II. Sherratt is chilling, actually: Geronte seems to be to some extent in bed with the Nazis. One wonders if this is intentionally so.

Fabio Luisi continues to impress as a conductor of broad style and intricate detail.

Back to Rob Howell’s sets. Unlike Sir Richard’s Carmen and Le Nozze di Figaro, also designed by Howell, the larger structures in Manon Lescaut don’t morph into new settings so easily or for the final scene so quickly. Sometimes, Act I particularly, the structure works well both scenically and atmospherically, but Manon’s boudoir, bed and dressing table (Act II), are enclosed in the same wall, albeit in a different orientation. It’s a darker color scheme; golden stairs descend from a different doorway high above. She resides at stage-level. It looks cold: can this really be where Manon sleeps and makes love? Even if it is not love being made?

And at Le Havre, from which Manon and the other fallen women are to be deported, the designers could have evoked a heavy Channel fog blowing past the visible bow of the freighter, the mid-ship and stern not seen, enshrouded in the mist. This truly would look and feel like the end of Casablanca, which, like Manon Lescaut, is full of tense of goings, comings, and narrow escapes…but the wall is still there, clearly visible, completely destroying the illusion.

Finally, the projection on the darkened screen before the curtain rises for Act III, Scene II, says ‘Wasteland,’ fair enough, but it’s the wall again. Okay, it’s severely damaged, enclosing a partly destroyed grand structure, ceiling collapsed, windows with shell holes, debris everywhere, probably from bombardment…is it a cathedral? Is it a university lecture hall or a library building? Really doesn't matter. Much of Europe was a wasteland by the end of the war, but I'll bet you're thinking, as I say this, "hey wait, aren't they transported to Louisiana?" Yes, so the libretto and source novel say. But both the structure and its condition beg the questions: to where were they, Manon and Des Grieux, transported to by freighter (i.e., over deep water) and how would they end up in a crumbling formerly elegant structure like this in what must be a war zone? Am I missing something about Louisiana?

Just quibbling. The general mood is right, even if the details compromise the totality of the effect. On the musical side the Met's new Manon Lescaut is a winner, hands down.

And for the record, this is NOT the same production as that from Covent Garden in June of 2014, starring Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann, captured on SONY Classical DVD.

Review performance date at the Met: February 18, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Check out the page Projects here on OperaMetro: though Massenet and Puccini begin their operas with the same scene, and end in more or less the same place, they (and their librettists) tackle different parts of the source novel. Find out the real story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut!!

Manon Lescaut is performed at the Met in three acts (Act I, Act II, then Acts III & IV in a single sitting). The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! February is more than half over…this past Saturday one could smell spring in the air! And that's not just wishful thinking!!

JRS

Puccini's fairy tale Turandot

Puccini’s grand Turandot with Nina Stemme to be telecast in HD

Trying not to appear to disrespect my experience of Birgit Nilsson at the Met way back in my standing days on Broadway and 39th Street, I’ll say unequivocally that last night Nina Stemme gave one of the best performances of Turandot I’ve ever seen.

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nilsson, right? You had to be there: a typical Nilsson night, live in the house, was a performance of maximum vocal impact, not only as Turandot, but also as any of the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Salome or Elektra. It wasn’t just her endless stamina and the sheer size of her voice, but also its sweet spot, bright, clean, accurate and effortless, cut through a full orchestra and chorus like a hot knife through a stick of butter, this so at least into the mid-1970s. Hildegard Behrens, for most of us Nilsson’s successor in the German repertory, couldn’t quite match that power or, with ease, the volume, and yet I felt that Behrens always added a deeper soul to her characters than La Nilsson, thus making them much more emotionally touching. Her Elektra at the Met from 1994 (captured on DVD) is the total package.

Likewise Nina Stemme. In Turandot’s big scene in Act II, Stemme mostly won the battle, she versus the full Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, entrenched between her and the audience and cranked up to the max by conductor Carlo Carignani. But the scene doesn’t allow much variation in character. Actually, being heard at all is the primary challenge.

Stemme’s Act III, however, was to a degree entrancing: Yes, Turandot’s ice melts at Calaf’s kiss but the warming begins already at Liu’s self-sacrifice and continues later from his sincere professions of love and again with his willingness to reveal his name, thus making himself vulnerable and at her mercy. One feels the warming because Stemme reacts: she makes believable the transformation from a closed, cruel, defensive, emotionally scarred woman to one more accepting, human, possibly loving, not just by singing more softly at times but also by…well, acting softly. It was a beautiful scene and when she announced to all assembled that “His name is Love,” one felt as if the fairy tale had resolved and they lived happily ever after.

Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

This said, one cannot wait to see her as Richard Strauss’s Elektra later this season (spoiler alert: not a happy ending in this one) and, just around the corner, Wagner’s Isolde. Stemme is a genuine dramatic soprano. We welcome her return to the Met.

Stemme was surrounded by a solid cast. Anita Hartig, as Liu, has that bright, clean, accurate Nilssonic edge to an otherwise sweet and expressive voice. Her Liu was both assertive and submissive, genuine in each.

Marco Berti’s Calaf was ringing solidly throughout the first act, certainly holding his own in the second, then early in the third he seemed to tire a bit, but rallied and gave a strong finish. A young Alexander Tsymbalyuk gave solid voice to the ancient Timur, Calaf’s father; Ronald Naldi was the considerably more ancient Emperor Altoum.

Conspicuous in this performance was the elegant Ping of Dwayne Croft, partnered by Tony Stevenson’s Pang and Eduardo Valdes’ Pong. Croft brought a fine vocal line to a role often handed off to the second stringers. The three ruminate and reflect on happier days, Act II, Scene I, which brings genuine repose before the vocal roar to come in Scene II. See the page Addenda for more on the three Ps.

Conductor Paolo Carignani started the opera in a rush, exciting, but rushed, though later settling down to allow Puccini’s aural atmospheres to rise with the moon. He favored volume, but not at the expense of orchestral details; the chorus rose mightily to their considerable opportunities to impress.

...happily ever after

...happily ever after

As Metropolitan Opera productions go these days, the opulent Turandot production by Franco Zeffirelli is something of a fossil. No, it’s not quite as old as Zeffirelli’s treasured La Bohème (1982), indeed I’ve heard some fans swear that if the Met puts this Bohème out to pasture, so go they (without specifying exactly where that pasture is). But the Turandot, which was new in the spring of 1987 (and reviewed even back then by yours truly), always was and remains today an impact piece both by the size of its sights and by the size of its sounds.

It is still a really good show today as it has been ever since then, and even better with Nina Stemme in the title role. Don’t miss it!

Reviewed performance date: January 11, 2016, again the dead of winter, but no snow.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Turandot is performed here in three acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a half hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! Make it special! Think big!

JRS

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. 

JRS