Reviewed by James Karas
If one were to use the number of productions of an opera by the Metropolitan Opera, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers would have to be declared extinct. The last time the Met staged this work was 100 years ago. There were other opera companies that kept the opera on life support in some places and even alive in others.
The Met has spared no expense or expertise in its current production which was beamed to the world as if New York were doing penance for its century-long neglect.
When the orchestra strike the first chords of the score, the massive curtain of Lincoln Canter goes up revealing two divers underwater. Beams of sunlight stream into the blue sea in a stunning illusion of an underwater scene and a display of technical know-how.
A scene from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
The Pearl Fishers needs four singers and places much work on the shoulders of the chorus. The superb Diana Damrau sings the role of the beautiful, virginal priestess Leila who comes to the pearl fishers’ camp to pray and dispel the demons of the sea that may threaten their diving. Praying with such a gorgeous voice would attract the good demons who will guard against the nasty ones.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the role Nadir with ease and assurance as if he were a crooner. Nadir is paired with Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) his childhood friend, with whom he swore to stay away from a beautiful priestess that they both fell in love with. Kwiecien has a fine voice but he does not quite have the presence that the role calls for. In the first minutes of the opera, he is seen handing out notes to the people and then calls for the election of a leader. He is “elected” unanimously. The bribery is no doubt a bit of humour inserted by director Penny Woolcock but that does not make Zurga look more than just one of the people. Not that important, of course, because his relationship with Leila and Nadir is the focal point of the opera.
And, yes, Polenzani and Kwiecien do a fine job in the deliciously melodic duet “Au fond du temple saint.”
Bass Nicolas Testé sings the role of the sombre Nourabad who catches Nadir and Leila breaking their vows. The Met chorus is at its best.
Costumes by Kevin Pollard vary from traditional Indian attire to saris, to baseball caps, sports shirts, turbans, Bermuda shorts, pants and probably other pieces that I did not notice. Two men go through the crowd wearing black suits and shirts and the only thig missing was the white collar to make them look like priests. The opera is set in the present, I guess, and we are somewhere in Asia.
The set by Dick Bird is a mass of steps, platforms and scaffolds that on the big screen seemed almost impassable.
The entire production takes place at night and we see the singers when the light zeroes in on them. There is singing and dancing and moments of happiness and I am not sure why Woolcock has decided that darkness serves the opera best.
In addition to the striking opening scene of the divers, there are projections of violent waves which perhaps justify the fishers’ fear of the sea and the elements.
Nadir and Leila are condemned to death and the crowd is pleased at the prospect of a double execution. But Zurga finds a way of distracting the people by setting their camp on fire. Don’t pay attention to details but Zurga starts with bribery and ends with arson. On the bright side, the distraction allows the lovers to escape and we will never know Zurga’s fate.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Gianandrea Noseda are at their best in delivering Bizet’s lush and highly approachable melodies.
Musically and vocally, a superb production. The set and lighting may look better in the opera house than on the screen where you see details but not the full picture. The real question is: what took the Met so long to bring back a highly viable opera in a highly enjoyable production.
The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet was transmitted Live in HD on January 16, 2016 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, Ontario and other theatres across Canada. It will be shown again at select theatres on February 20, 22 and 24, 2016. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events