Les PĂȘcheurs de Perles Is Back in NY

January 4, 2016 | By John Yohalem,

NEW YORK--The return to the Metropolitan Opera, after an absence of 99 years, of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles was an appropriate occasion for New Year’s Eve, delighting a happy and glittering house. Handsomely staged and attractively sung, the opera may prove the triumph of the 2015-16 season.

Les Pêcheurs is just what many opera lovers crave: an unfamiliar piece in a familiar, unthreatening style, written by a composer beloved for other work. Bizet was 24 when he wrote Les Pêcheurs in the summer of 1863. It was forgotten until the popularity of Carmen 15 years later (and Bizet’s death soon after) created a need to explore his neglected tyro work. The vivid originality of Carmen is so familiar that we forget how startling it was when new. Les Pêcheurs, libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, with its cardboard Orientalism and plot rife with coincidence, is nothing like it. Still it’s an enjoyable period piece, and its elegiac melodies have kept it on the fringes of the repertory. (The City Opera and the Opera Orchestra of New York used to revive it occasionally.) Lately, indeed, it has been enjoying a bit of an international vogue; the new Met production comes from English National Opera.

The story is boilerplate: the implacable priest of a mysterious foreign deity, a priestess vowed to remain veiled and chaste for a year, two sworn friends who discover they are both in love with her, a talisman that proves one of them owes her his life. The superstitious villagers who rely on pearl-diving for their livelihood are part of the exotic background: They have no personality but a great deal of “scenery” to sing. Their music might have been made with Donald Palumbo’s well-schooled chorus in mind.

Happily, Oriental clichés did not invade Bizet’s imagination while composing, but there is a sensuous languor to the melodious, amorous phrases of the famous tenor-baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” of the tenor’s romance “Je crois entendre encore,” of his love duet with the priestess, Leila. There’s a raging storm to end Act II and a distracting fire to end Act III, but neither of these events gets much musical definition.

None of the Met’s cast sang French impeccably, but no one seemed to mind. Matthew Polenzani performed Nadir’s romance and serenade with the suave tone and easy breath control that have made his Mozart roles so winning. Diana Damrau tossed her coloratura about ably, though hampered by having to hold her veil away from her face while singing Leila. (There must be a way to do this less intrusively.) She was able but there were phrases that faded as if poorly supported; perhaps she will grow used to singing the role in a house the size of the Met after a performance or two. She has a colorless trill but a way of inserting winsome grace notes in a line that enhance the music’s meaning.

The singing of Mariusz Kwiecien, in the role of Zurga, is always gracious when unforced, as in “Au fond du temple,” where (as in Così fan tutte some years ago), his dark vocal color blended beautifully with Polenzani’s light, sweet one. Emotional turmoil, however, makes him gruff. Nicolai Testé, an impressive basso cantante new to me, gave Nourabad, the malicious high priest, authority and impact without having to bellow. Gianandrea Noseda led the Met orchestra in the full expression of the score’s sensual extravagance without ever wallowing: This was a tight, propulsive performance, glittering like bright stars reflected on harbor water, always at the service of telling the story.

Penny Woolcock has set the opera not in an ageless and florid Ceylon but in a sordid wharf-side slum in modern Sri Lanka, its shadowy lagoon overlooked by tenements and billboards. That sounds hideous in the modern updated taste, doesn’t it? But Dick Bird’s set, Jen Schriever’s lighting, and the work of a company called 59 Productions fill it with winning visual elements that never contradict the story or the score. Thus, during the brief prelude, pearl-divers “swim” in a sea as lofty as the Met stage, and throughout the story, sea-like draperies ruffle below the docks suggesting a gently seething lagoon. The tidal surge that whelms the cast at the end of Act II is certainly a thrill, and I wish whoever is responsible would do a Flying Dutchman for us, and the fire Zurga sets to cover the lovers’ escape is also an audience-tickler. The updating of the action, which includes having Zurga pay off the fishermen who are about to elect a new chief, includes a huge backdrop office—a bit lofty for a fishing village, isn’t it?—where Kwiecien gets to tear his shirt off in a frenzy of frustrated rage.

The rickety wharves of the setting have the effect of shoving all the action to the lip of the stage, and indeed my only cavil with this delightful show is the determination of the singers to rush front and center whenever it was time for a solo. This has become usual at the Met where not so long ago singers performed big numbers all over the acreage. Are singers developing smaller voices, and are they afraid of not being audible? Is it a whim of stage directors to use centerfield entirely for crowds or special effects? Or are conductors nervous that their beat might not be clearly seen?





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