Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) premiered in Paris in 1863, a full decade before Carmen. Its exotic Indian subcontinent plot, complete with undulating melismas, a chaste coloratura priestess and a disapproving elder priest, inevitably recalls another opera that premiered in Paris exactly twenty years later, Léo Delibes’s Lakmé (which I saw at Opera Holland Park last summer).
For modern listeners, Lakmé and Pearl Fishers have another thing in common: they’re both somewhat obscure operas with one or two extremely popular hit numbers. For Lakmé, it’s the Bell Song and Flower Duet, for Pearl Fishers it’s the tenor-baritone duet in which two reunited buddies–one a baritone head pearl fisher, the other a tenor of vague provenance–displace any more-than-buddy feelings by singing about a beautiful, absent woman (seriously, this duet occupies Don Carlo/Posa territory of subtext).
Bizet obviously knew that he found the big hit with this duet. Its main theme is associated with absent lady Léila, who is the female part of the plot’s love triangle and isn’t absent for much longer (like Mr. Tenor in the beginning of this opera, people in The Pearl Fishers have a way of showing up exactly when they are required). This association means we get to hear it plenty more times, though usually in the orchestra. You get your money’s worth with that duet.
Unfortunately in the rest of the opera you can see why the Met hasn’t performed this one for a century. The Met’s new production showcases a score with many beautiful moments beyond the duet, but the opera itself comes across as clunky and without any emotional weight. Penny Woolcock’s production is better than I expected having read its London reviews (it was first performed at the English National Opera several years ago), but it and a somewhat mismatched cast don’t really make a convincing argument for this piece. There are worse ways to pass an evening, but it’s underwhelming. Here, I’m going to try to figure out why I thought this.
Bizet, Les pêcheurs de perles. Met Opera, 1/8/2016. New production directed by Penny Woolcock (from English National Opera), sets by Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Jen Schriever, “movement” by Andrew Dawson. Conducted by Gianandrea Noseda with Diana Damrau (Léila), Matthew Polenzani (Nadir), Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad)
One problem with the libretto is that the exoticism is painfully superficial. The Sri Lankan setting might have been in fashion but despite having a cast of pearl fishers in Sri Lanka, pearl fishing does not figure at all in the plot–you could change the title and about 10 lines of the libretto and it would not be there at all. This might seem a petty complaint but I think it’s more than that: this is an opera whose score and plot assumes that exoticism is an attraction in itself. The opera contains processions, tableaux, and dances in a kind of mini-grand opera fashion which would allow the display of beautiful, titillating artifacts.
With the exception of Lélia’s glittery costumes and veils, this production is rather cautious about parading this kind of cultural tourism. I think this is a good thing, particularly for an opera house that spent a few months last year trying to score sensitivity points regarding a certain blackface problem. (The Met promotions department, however, has not been so shy.) But it leaves an opera without a dramatic center, one in which the arbitrariness of the setting is obvious, a problem that could have been fixed but isn’t. Woolcock instead gives us a group of very poor people in a vaguely Indian modern setting. A glamorous billboard for pearls points out the disparity between the fishers’ life and the treasures they’re seeking, but this isn’t really pursued.
Dick Bird’s set in the first act is a collection of shacks and islands over the supposed water, and pretty suspended divers (though from my seat way off to the side of the orchestra I could also see the “diver” being slowly lowed in the wings, which was something of a buzzkill). The sets have rows of twinkling lights, one in act three has a big wall of office stuff that implies baritone honcho Zurga’s paperwork burden is somewhat greater than we may have anticipated. The islands of the first set, however, abet one of the staging’s other issues: it’s pretty static. Everyone needs to hop from one to the other, but mostly they stay put. And the opera never hesitates to stop the action for a nice, long, more or less plot-free chorus, and the staging of the chorus is mostly dramatically inert. This prevents any kind of plot momentum. There are some big grand opera denouements, including a storm and a threatened execution, but they come and go rather wanly.
|Damrau and Testé|
What dramatic heft there is is mostly provided by Diana Damrau as Léila. As usual, her stage presence is forthright, forceful, and very modern–if she had been born with a different voice I could see her as an ass-kicking Isolde and Brünnhilde. Her Leila is far from a nineteenth-century vision of a mysterious suffering maiden, and while this further dispels the opera’s local color it provides it with some meat. She did not, however, sound like she was in her best voice, sounding unfocused and hard-edged, and a trill in Act 2 went rather off pitch.
Matthew Polenzani, in contrast, was utterly in control of his pure, Mozartian tenor. He can float the killer Act 1 tenor aria with lyricism and everything was impeccably tasteful. Listening to him is always a pleasant experience. I wished, however, that I could merge Damrau’s occasionally messy urgency and Polenzani’s scrupulous musicality–neither is complete by themselves. Polenzani always seems to be making a good effort, acting-wise, but here has an underwritten, underdirected character and I couldn’t really tell what he was going for. (Non-sequitur, I wonder if some day a nice small theater would give him a try as Lohengrin. That might be good.)
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed most of Mariusz Kwicien’s singing recently; he sounds like he is forcing and barking and the tone has a dull quality. He does look good, though. In contrast, Damrau’s husband Nicolas Testé sounded excellent as the obligatory stern priest. Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting meandered at times but mostly sounded very pretty.
“Very pretty” is about the best thing I can say about this opera, I’m afraid. It’s not bad and the music is consistently more interesting than that of Lakmé, but it feels routine and cobbled together. It compares favorably with plenty of recent Met efforts, but it’s hard to consider its success more than lukewarm.
The Pearl Fishers continues through February 4. The HD broadcast is today, January 16, but surely will be repeated. Meanwhile, I’m headed to the BSO tonight for that most tacky and audience-pleasing of all ballets, Debussy’s Jeux.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.