Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) was last performed at the Met in 1916 – and then only three times. Enrico Caruso was not enough the make the opera a success in New York and it disappeared until the current run. The opera apparently was brought back at the behest of soprano Diana Damrau who sang the role of Léila. The photo below may explain the opera’s brief sojourn in New York.
The production was directed by Penny Woolcock who moved it from exotic ancient Ceylon to the poverty stricken Sri Lanka of a period close to the present. Given the nature of the story, I think it a mistake to change the time. But opera directors feel compelled to bend time frames in a desperate attempt to add something new to an old story, even an infrequently told one like The Pearl Fishers. Actually, the opera is no longer a rarity. I’ve seen two staged performances of it in the past few years.
The most imaginative feature of Woolcok’s staging was the underwater sequence at the opera’s start. It was a theatrical tour de force even if added virtually nothing to the opera other than theatrical wizardry. The rest of the staging was OK if accenting the seedy. The whole mise-en-scène brought back memories of Terry and the Pirates. Where the first scene of Act 3 was is a mystery – see the picture below and perhaps you can offer an explanation.
Bizet was only 24 years old when he wrote the work. While the opera may have not achieved a place in the standard repertory until recently, the tenor-baritone duet and the tenor’s aria from the same act are performed in concerts and on recordings almost to the point of saturation. The opera’s biggest flaw is that its main characters are entirely unsympathetic. The baritone burns down his own village, one that he has sworn to protect, so the tenor and soprano can enjoy illicit lust. There’s nobody to like in The Pearl Fishers.
The performance was quite good with the best work coming from Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He and tenor Matthew Polenzani gave a fine rendition of the aforementioned duet – ‘Au fond du temple saint’. Polenzani was very good with ‘Je Crois Encore Entendre’ the aria that every tenor since the archangel Michael has sung. He used voix mixte to great effect. Polenzani is one of those very good singers who always works at major houses because they have a solid technique and a pleasant sound. What Polenzani lacks is charisma. No one will go to the opera solely to hear him.
Damrau for whom, ostensibly, the opera was staged is a fine artist. In many of her roles she is unsurpassed. Léila, unfortunately, is not one of them. She was very good. Vocally everything was there, but she didn’t seem really engaged. Her duet with Polenzani in the second act lacked the passion it should display and didn’t come off the way it can when fully committed artists perform it. I don’t mean to say it was poorly done, just that it could have been better. Her forte is display not drama and she’s better in roles that feature fioritura and high notes.
The soprano baritone duet in the third, by contrast, was splendid mainly due to the excitement generated by Kwiecien’s passionate portrayal of the rejected and very jealous village chief Zurga. He has been singing Mozart and lighter baritone roles at the Met. The ardor and vocal power he displayed today suggest he may be ready to move to heavier baritone roles. He’s also an excellent actor and is physically very fit. One could not say that about any of the other principals. This duet would never find a place in a recital, but when done well on stage it shows the dramatic intensity that Bizet was to muster with so much skill in Carmen.
As far as I know, Kwiecien has not sung Verdi. At age 43 he seems ready to try the big Verdi baritone parts. He’s scheduled to sing Posa in Don Carlo this June in San Francisco. It will be interesting to see if can successfully handle great demands that Verdi imposes on his baritones.
The remaining principal was the High Priest Nourabad sung by French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé. The part is a small, but Testé sounded very good in his brief appearances. His sound is dark, virile, and smooth. I’d like to hear him in a larger role.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda led the Met’s great orchestra in a vigorous and insightful reading of Bizet’s youthful score. The chorus as usual sang beautifully while looking like rejects from Coxey’s Army. Luckily, verisimilitude is not an important ingredient in opera.
In summary, a fine performance of an opera, even if not ideally cast, that the Met should get around to more than once a century. Worth seeing if you’re in New York and certainly deserving of an audit when it gets to Public TV.
Metropolitan Opera House
January 16, 2016 Matinee
LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES
Georges Bizet-Michel Carré/Eugène Cormon
Set Designer…………Dick Bird
Costume Designer……..Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer…….Jen Schriever
Projection Design…….59 Productions
Movement Director…….Andrew Dawson
TV Director………….Matthew Diamond
The best opera production I have seen was the San Diego Opera about 11 years ago. The staging and lighting were incredible. Castronovo and Suriana were excellent in the leads. I dragged a non opera friend to it and she’s been going to operas ever since.