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Met in HD’s brilliantly staged ‘Pearl Fishers’ triumphs

Written By | Jan 31, 2016

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2016 – Snowmageddon 2016 ended up backlogging our reviewing schedule, so we’re more than a bit late with our comments on the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful and arguably definitive new production earlier this month of George Bizet’s still relatively-unknown opera, “Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” aka, “The Pearl Fishers.”

That said, we’d like to add yet another big thumbs-up to this brilliant production, which arguably could put this opera back on the map. Supported by a cast to die for, including soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, it’s just that good.

When compared to Bizet’s immortal and impossibly tune-filled “Carmen,” his earlier “Pearl Fishers” (1863) can seem at times like a mere trifle. We’ve seen it twice in the DC-area, first in a strange, colorful and rather innovatively cartoonish 2008 Washington National Opera production at the Kennedy Center Opera House; and more recently in 2012 at GMU’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia in a more dramatically effective though somewhat spare production by the Virginia Opera.

Leila's back in town and a friendship is in serious trouble. L-R: high priest, Leila. (Photo credit: Ken Howard for the New York Metropolitan Opera)

Leila’s back in town and a friendship is in serious trouble. L-R: high priest (Nicolas Testé), Leila (Diana Damrau). (Photo credit: Ken Howard for the New York Metropolitan Opera)

Taking place in set in a humble fishing village in ancient Ceylon (the current Sri Lanka), the plot of “Pearl Fishers” is deceptively simple. Two longtime friends, Zurga and Nadir, are reunited after a long estrangement due to their mutual passion for a mysterious woman named Leila. Time has mellowed their mutual hostility, however, and they sing the opera’s signature duet, “Au fond du temple saint” (roughly, “At the entrance of the temple”) renouncing forever all thought of the woman who came between them and re-pledge their undying friendship.

However, any opera fan will immediately guess how this one turns out, particularly when we learn that Leila and Nadir have since been an item and, worse, that as a young girl, Leila had once saved Zurga from his enemies. When Leila shows up in the village as an allegedly chaste priestess to offer prayers for the success of the new fishing season, she is discovered by Nadir and they attempt to resume their affair, leading to disastrous consequences.

After seeing both Washington area productions of “Pearl Fishers,” I’d pretty much concluded that, aside from its famous duet, this was a pleasant but unexceptional work that did, however, provide us with musical clues as to the composer’s considerable but still developing skill set. However, the Met’s phenomenal January production of the opera—its first in a century—would force almost anyone to re-evaluate such a position. We caught the production mid-month at the Tysons Corner (Virginia) AMC 16 theater complex during its live “Met in HD” performance, and were immediately taken aback by this production’s astonishing and refreshing originality.

While I have not been a particular fan of “updated” productions, this Met production—borrowed from the English National Opera’s 2010 production—as conceived and directed by Penny Woolcock—seamlessly brings the story into the 21st century with nary a hitch.

The lovers are discovered. L-R: Diana Damrau, x, Mariusz Kwiecien,

The lovers are discovered. L-R: Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien, Nicolas Testé. (Photo credit: Ken Howard for the New York Metropolitan Opera)

The production is staged primarily in the dock area of the fishing village, which, as is often true of third-world villages, is in many ways not much-removed from earlier traditions. Villagers and village officials alike are attired in a hodgepodge of outfits ranging from loose-fitting traditional costumes to more modern tee shirts and flip-flops.

The wooden dock area is littered with fishing gear and, in background, we see rickety older housing and fishing shacks with more modern, typically cheap, brutalist-style apartment complexes in background.

An added plus in this production is the addition of first-rate projected backgrounds plus a stunning and elaborately mounted “special effect” during the opera’s opening bars—a combination of projected scenery and live acrobats simulating actual pearl fishers as they dive deep under water to search for the tiny treasures that are the village’s economic life blood.

Staging and special effects aside, however, both the Met and Ms. Woolcock were blessed by a marvelous core cast of well-known singer-actors who bring Bizet’s somewhat improbable characters to pulsating life; namely soprano Diana Damrau (Leila), tenor Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) and one of our all-time favorites, the marvelous Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) who’s fast becoming a regular presence in the Met’s core cast.

Along with bass-baritone Nicolas Testé as the strict-constructionist high priest Nourabad, these lead singers, along with the Met’s superb chorus, bring a believable contemporary feeling to this production while not creating characters who would neglect the religious (primarily Hindu) elements that make this opera more than a bit exotic.

In particular, both male leads—Mssrs. Polenzani and Kwiecien—are able to render believable the somewhat too-rapid shift of their characters from the best of friends to the bitterest of enemies, a shift that comes across weakly in lesser productions. This, in turn, adds dramatic heft to the production, an effect that’s intensified with the key confrontation scene between Zurga and a highly distraught Leila as the opera nears its climax.

The village burns out of control as Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien) looks on in the finale of Bizet's "Pearl Fishers." (Photo credit: Ken Howard for the New York Metropolitan Opera)

The village burns out of control as Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien) looks on in the finale of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers.” (Photo credit: Ken Howard for the New York Metropolitan Opera)

In addition to their acting skills, the primary cast is also in top vocal form, singing with the kind of passion and intensity that we only expect in the grandest of grand operas. Although “Pearl Fishers” takes place on a more intimate, less grand scale, the singers help us see and feel the intense emotions cascading through each character just as convincingly as if they had been kings or queens.

Aiding the singers considerably was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under the capable baton of Gianandrea Noseda, who, happily for DC classical music and opera fans has recently been signed to succeed Christoph Eschenbach as the National Symphony Orchestra’s new music director.

Maestro Noseda’s reading of the score—as well as the orchestra’s superb execution of same—gave this “Pearl Fishers” greater emotional depth and detail than previous versions we’ve seen, bringing out this score’s surprising depth and thoughtfulness, revealing this work as much more than a mere precursor to “Carmen.”

Cursed with an unlucky career and an early demise, Bizet has typically been viewed by many as a “one-shot wonder” composer. But, thanks to a thoroughly thought-out and meticulously executed theatrical and musical game plan by Ms. Woolcock, Maestro Noseda and a cast of superb soloists, chorus members and instrumentalists, “The Pearl Fishers” may now have gotten the boost it needs to get this fascinating opera back into the regular repertoire of opera companies looking to break out from their steady (if crowd-pleasing) diets of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart.

Rating: **** (Four stars out of four.)

(Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17