Grant Chu Covell
Bizet died suddenly (Jun. 3, 1875) three months after Carmen’s premiere (Mar. 3). He was never to know that his last opera would become so insanely popular. Les pêcheurs de perles was the composer’s first publicly staged work (Sept. 30, 1863, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris), but it was not well received by any standard. He was not yet 25 at the time. Compared with the vastly superior Carmen, Les pêcheurs has but one big tune, appearing in the duet Au fond du temple saint and sprinkled afterwards (however not quite as a leitmotif because it’s not clear what it represents). Opera plots customarily dispense with reality, nevertheless Les pêcheurs’ scenario (by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré) is far-fetched and not just because it is set in exotic Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This production is new to the Metropolitan Opera as of 2015, and before that, it had been last seen in its entirety during the 1916-17 season.
A community of pearl fishers in a seaside town agrees that Zurga will be their leader. Zurga’s childhood friend Nadir appears, and together they declare their undying friendship and steadfastly agree to renounce any competing love for Leïla (the celebrated duet Au fond du temple saint). Coincidentally, a veiled priestess arrives whose prayers are meant to protect the village from storms. Nadir and Leïla recognize each other and are discovered together, and Zurga must punish them. But it turns out that Leïla had saved Zurga’s life years ago, and he sets fire to the village so that Nadir and Leïla may escape. A fourth headline role is Nourabad, a priest of Brahma.
For the Tuesday, November 20, 2018 production at the Met, soprano Pretty Yende was Leïla, tenor Javier Camarena sang Nadir, and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien started as Zurga. Emmanuel Villaume conducted, and bass-baritone Nicolas Testé was Nourabad. A highlight of the performance occurred during the overture, when behind the scrim, graceful dancers on wires simulated diving from the top of the stage to the bottom.
Penny Woolcock’s production is set in an unspecified contemporary time. We see billboards, electric lights and air conditioners. In Act III, Zurga adjusts a TV and grabs a cold one from a mini-fridge. During the second half’s scene changes, projections on the scrim alternate between foaming waves and densely packed apartment blocks. Given recent fires in California and storm damage in Florida, it is ironic that Les pêcheurs’ villagers put their faith in prayer, and unfairly attribute flooding to one couple’s forbidden passion. It is ambiguous at opera’s end whether the people realize Zurga is an arsonist.
After the intermission, it was announced that Kwiecien was ill and that Alexander Birch Elliott would take the role of Zurga for the remainder of the evening. In fact this was the third time Elliott stepped forward to complete the opera, Kwiecien also dropped out halfway on the prior Nov. 14 and 17 performances (Nov. 14 marked Elliott’s Met Opera debut). It has been announced that Kwiecien is withdrawing due to illness, and that Elliott will sing Zurga for the rest of the run. The second half was decidedly more cohesive than the first. It felt as if Camarena and Kwiecien had been holding back in their duet and, in retrospect, it may have been clear to Yende and others that Kwiecien was not in top form. It did seem that Villaume had better rapport with the orchestra after intermission. In the first half, the conductor seemed to be battling unsympathetic musicians. Other than Camarena, I thought everyone’s French was mushy, including the chorus who moved awkwardly on risers. Elliott was comfortable and commanding, especially in the Act III solo where he wrestles with his feelings and responsibilities. Going forward I’m sure the performances will be more energetic and unified.
[Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, Pretty Yende as Leïla, and Javier Camarena as Nadir in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera.]
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