By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera celebrated New Year’s Eve in grand style with the gala opening of a rarity not performed by the company in nearly a century: Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles. A top-notch cast, beautiful visuals, and a straightforward staging resulted in a festive evening and excellent start for 2016.
The Pearl Fishers was composed in 1863 when Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre Lyrique (one of Paris’s secondary opera houses), needed a never-performed opera by a recent winner of the Prix de Rome, a prestigious Paris Conservatory composition prize. He asked the 25-year-old Georges Bizet to set a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. The composer had already written several unperformed operas, so he was able to deliver a score in the required four months by recycling music from those operas and other compositions.
The opera premiered in September 1863 to mixed reactions and closed after 18 performances. In spite of a fashionably exotic setting and pleasing music, the awkward drama was burdened with wooden characterizations, clumsy coincidences, and not one but two climatic disasters. The music shows glimmers of Bizet’s mature style, as well as the influence of Gounod, Massenet, and others. It only entered the repertory in the 1880s, likely riding on the posthumous success of Carmen, and continues to be given regularly all over the world. But after a truncated performance in 1896 and three performances in 1916, starring Caruso, the Met put away the score for nearly a century.
Les Pêcheurs de perles is a classic love triangle set in a fishing village in Ceylon: in the past, lifelong friends Nadir, a pearl diver, and Zurga, the village chief, quarreled over a woman. Nadir left the village for a year, returning in time for the annual visit of a virgin priestess who sings a ritual night song to Brahma to protect the village from the sea’s wrath. Uneasily, the men renew their friendship with the famous duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” as they remember the veiled woman who came between them — and whom Nadir promises to forget.
When the priestess, Leila, arrives to perform her ritual, Nadir recognizes her voice and cannot stay away. In the second act, Nadir persuades Leila to break her vow of chastity and renew their love. Discovered, they are saved from the wrath of the mob by Zurga’s clemency, until he recognizes the unveiled priestess as the object of their former rivalry. A sudden tsunami destroys the village and saves the lovers. In the third act, Leila comes to plead for Nadir’s life, but Zurga’s jealousy condemns the pair until a necklace provides proof that Leila had saved his Zurga’s life years before, and therefore Zurga is honor-bound to spare her. To save the couple from ritual execution, Zurga distracts the enraged mob by setting fire to the village and helps the pair escape.
At the Met, Penny Woolcock’s gracefully updated staging, a co-production with English National Opera, transposes the action from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to an unspecified coastal village in Asia. Tin shacks perch on stepped, rickety docks over the water; a narrow board bridges the water at the apron and hillside shanties tower in the background. Kevin Pollard’s costumes mix saris and sarongs with sneakers and baseball caps. A billboard, sagging power lines, beer bottles, Zurga’s Rolex, and other modern touches allow a viewer to contemplate, if so inclined, the harsh conditions in developing countries.
These small details were the extent of any directorial edginess. Woolcock left unchanged this drama of individuals who break the rules of a society that lives in fear and at the mercy of nature. The richly colored costumes and a gold shrine contrast with the night sky and the water, gleaming black in repose and churning gray as the waves rise. (Sets are by Dick Bird, lighting by Jen Shriever, movement by Andrew Dawson, and projections by 59 Productions). The only thing missing is a ballet to show off the dance music.
But the most important element was the singing, and the Met cast a winning team. Diana Damrau, for whom the production was mounted, has a shining lyric coloratura soprano that sounds more womanly than in the past, but she used the ornamentation in “O Dieu Brahma” to convey a fluttery girlishness. Her high diminuendos were breathtaking, yet she could also summon cutting power for her third act confrontation with Zurga.
Mariusz Kwiecien was commanding as Zurga but he sounded less persuasively French, with a generalized hollowness to the timbre where a more focused, refined sound was needed. Yet the timbre worked for the blustering leader whose jealousy often overcame his innate decency, and in that famous duet he used his sound to blend beautifully with Nadir. In the small part of Nourabad, the priest who accompanies Leila, the suave bass Nicolas Testé gave a lesson in French style.
Perhaps the finest singing came from Matthew Polenzani in a splendid role debut as Nadir. The expressiveness of his singing fleshed out his sketchily drawn character with power, poignancy, and beauty. The tender yearning of his Act I “Je crois entendre encore,” with gorgeously floated high notes, stopped the show, and his acting was ardent and convincing.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who this week was named music director of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra starting with the 2017-18 season, helmed an elegant, disciplined performance, with good balances and exciting climaxes. Shows later in the run will probably develop more nuance of tempo in the important men’s solos and duet. The Met’s choristers sounded sumptuous and looked like they knew what they were doing as they negotiated the very tricky set.
The Pearl Fishers may not be a towering masterpiece, but its appeal is irresistible — it’s as escapist as Star Wars, in a different register. The music is accessible, with deftly crafted melodies that lodge in the ear like Broadway show tunes. The production is beautiful, full of wondrous stage magic by 59 Productions: a brief opening illusion of aerialists deep-sea diving is one of the most stunning effects I’ve seen on the Met stage. The opera’s seductive and uncomplicated charms will please newcomers and experienced operagoers alike. The Met should have a hit on its hands if audiences can be enticed into the theater during the season’s quietest period.
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The January 16 matinee performance will be broadcast live in HD in movie theaters.