Les Pêcheurs de Perles
“The Pearl Fishers”
Metropolitan Opera House
Music: Georges Bizet
Libretto: Eugène Cormon, Michel Carré
Conductor: Antony Walker
Production: Penny Woolcock
Set Designer: Dick Bird
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever
Projection Design: 59 Productions
Movement Director: Andrew Dawson
General Manager: Peter Gelb
Music Director: James Levine
Zurga, Village Headman: Mariusz Kwiecien (Baritone)
Nadir, a Pearl Diver: Matthew Polenzani (Tenor)
Leïla, Priestess of Brahma: Amanda Woodbury (Soprano)
Nourabad, High Priest of Brahma: Nicolas Testé (Bass-Baritone)
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 4, 2016
The Pearl Fishers (1863)
(Read the plot of the opera, The Pearl Fishers here.)
One of the most unknown and gorgeous operas, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, was performed last night at the Metropolitan Opera, and the audience was transfixed. From my perch in a side-front, dress circle box, peering down at the Met Orchestra, sumptuously conducted by Antony Walker, watching the curtain rise on an underwater, deep blue visual ocean, with actors deep-sea diving for pearls, literally hung from heavy rafter wiring, I was transported to Ceylon, now named Sri Lanka. I say “now”, because, as in so many contemporary productions of 19th century operas, the setting has been shifted from 1863 to a recent era. If the viewer can fantasize that the scenery does not include a library refrigerator of beer and the costumes do not include blue jeans and sandals, one can be swept away by Bizet’s solo and duo arias of sumptuous proportion, sung by this crème de la crème cast.
Matthew Polenzani, who has been favorably reviewed on these pages, was Nadir, the pearl diver in the tenor role, while Mariusz Kwiecien, also recently favorably reviewed, was Zurga, the village headman in the baritone role. Both Zurga and Nadir had been enamored of Leïla, the Priestess of Brahma, but they promised each other to forget their respective obsessions to seal their bond of loyal friendship. Amanda Woodbury, soprano, as Leïla, performed just tonight in the season’s final presentation of the opera. Leïla is bound to a life of virginity, guarded by Nourabad, the high Priest of Brahma, a role performed by Nicolas Testé, bass-baritone. The Met Chorus sang the roles of villagers, at first cheering their new headman, later pouncing on him, when he torturously makes the ultimate sacrifice for his adored Leïla and his friend, Nadir.
In Act I, Nadir and Zurga sing the renowned duet, “Au fond du temple saint”, with the libretto lyrics by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, enchantingly evoking an elusive goddess, whose face is hidden behind a veil. This duet brought down the House with the audience’s hefty vocal accolades. Mr. Polenzani, tenor, can shift, mid-note, to a higher or lower range, seamlessly and sensuously. He exudes yearning and passion with gaze and breath. Mr. Kwiecien, baritone, commands attention with rapture and muscular dimension. Further in Act I, Nadir, alone, sings “À cette voix...Je crois entendre encore”, with a craving for Leïla, sometimes expressed in quasi-mezzo tones that kept the hall mesmerized. Ms. Woodbury, soprano, sang with glowing and forceful clarity, expanding her character’s magnetism and vulnerability. Her Act II “Me voilà seule dans la nuit...Comme autrefois” was ravishing and eloquent. As Nourabad, the bass-baritone Nicolas Testé was authoritative and charged.
Conductor, Antony Walker kept the Met Orchestra as surreal as the narrative’s exotic theme. I distinctly heard quotes from Bizet’s Carmen (opera) and Symphony in C (ballet), both of which lent personal import. The Chorus sang with gorgeous resonance and tone. Penny Woolcock’s production is exciting in the floating underwater scenes, with sea water creeping up on the set’s banks, and the staging of the spellbinding arias and solos. When a huge storm hits in Act II, the projections and special effects are wondrous. Dick Bird’s Sri Lanka village set is luminously lit by Jen Schriever. Kevin Pollard’s sari for Leïla, which Nadir unwraps in an intimate, twilight scene, plus the villager saris, exude hand-weaving and fine design. The projections by 59 Productions brought the tsunami to life, and Andrew Dawson’s movement direction assisted the underwater pearl fishers. Kudos to all, and kudos to Georges Bizet, who was only twenty-five when he composed this opera’s luscious score.