Metropolitan Opera 2015-16 Review - Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) : Damrau, Co-Stars & Terrific Production Proves Why Opera Is Vital to Repertoire
It has been over 100 years since the Metropolitan Opera performed Bizet's early work "Les Pecheurs de Perles," but the wait has been well worth it.
Featuring an all-star cast and a terrific production, this revival of the glorious melodic work is without a doubt one of the finest events of the still-young 2015-16 season.
Set in the Far East (modern-day Sri Lanka), the opera tells the story of a small town that welcomes a virgin to protect it through her song. Leila, the name of said virgin, is not allowed to give into the temptation of love lest she be sentenced to death on the spot. The problem is that Leila happens to be in love with Nadir, one of the men who lives in this village. More importantly, Nadir's best friend Zurga, who is the leader of the town, is in love with Leila. However, Zurga has no idea that it is Leila who has come as she must remain veiled until her job is done.
Bizet's work swoops in with ravishing lyricism, every number of this French work filled with abundant melody.
Director Penny Woolcock's production is "traditional" in the sense that it features rather lavish sets without much abstraction in concept or design. That said, her way with video projects creates a smoothness to the imagery that matches the perpetual legato of Bizet's lyricism. In an opera where water dominates over the proceedings like a fourth main character (the people fear it; water is soothing at some points and destructive at others), the production opens on an image of pearl fishers living in harmony with the water. They dive down in a virtuosic shot that not only mesmerizes with its tranquil feel, but also the questions regarding its peerless execution. Once the curtain rises, the village is shown, divided by the river running through it. Zurga enters from one side of the embankment while Nadir from the opposite and for much of the opera, the two remain on their respective sides. Nadir is relegated to stage left while Zurga occupies the opposite side. It is a simple staging tactic, but one that draws the line regarding their separation and the betrayal at the heart of the work. Nadir's famed aria is sung from this side of the stage and his first call to Leila also exhibits this separation.
When Nadir violates the code and enters Leila's shrine, he enters on stage right, thus also dirtying the domain of Zurga. The scene between Leila and Zurga is from more condensed and even oppressive in its lack of depth. The fact that there are high walls hanging over the small office emphasizes this sense of danger and discomfort for the main characters. Again Zurga's main domain even in this small set is on stage right and he rarely ever moves to the other side. At one point he turns on a television that is located on stage left, but promptly turns it off and heads back to the other side of the stage.
The final scene of the opera seems to unite the two sides and it is here, in the opera's climax that there is no sense of division; this emphasizes Zurga's forgiveness of Nadir as well as the relinquishment of his power.
This is simple, yet effective and focused storytelling at its finest. Any use of special effects only adds to the nuance of the drama. During the famed duet between Nadir and Zurga (during which the two also stand on opposite sides of the stage), a mast portrays the image of Leila floating in the air; a dream that hovers over them, but highlights the sadness of the music and the pain this very image will cause for these brothers.
The three performers brought on to bring these characters to life are undoubtedly the best possible choices at hand.
Diana Damrau's Leila proved a rather passionate representation. Her early vocal displays were subdued and relaxed, emphasizing the virgin's purity and submissiveness. Yet after seeing Nadir, her final oath was delivered with an emphatic declamation, expressing Leila's newfound and conflicted emotions. Her first song at the end of the opening act was delicate in its delivery, the coloratura thrown off with relative ease. This was Leila again at her most pure and relaxed, though there was a frailty here, expressing Leila's weak resolving regarding her oath. Moreover the final lines were delivered with far more weight, a sense of the erotic creeping into the legato.
The music of her aria at the start of her next act, also retains that reserve of the first song, but with a seeming desire for release. Damrau managed this delicate balance delivering her most remarkable singing on the evening. High notes seemed like they would blossom, yet the soprano managed to strike them ever so quietly and then let them grow in glorious crescendo. The ensuing duet is when the soprano let her voice finally hit its stride, the intensity of the passion between the two characters at its most vibrant. This was furthered in the final duet of the opera, Damrau and partner Matthew Polenzani blending their voices together beautifully; the colors, phrasing and dynamic shifts melding into one.
Polenzani had a rather tricky task of playing Nadir, a character who swears an oath to his best friend at the outset of the opera and then reveals that he has already broken that oath before the curtain rose. Then he decides to betray his friend and the village people that have just taken him in and shows no remorse thereafter. While Nadir ultimately gets his happy ending, he proves to be a bit troubling for the viewer, despite his great love for Leila.
Yet Polenzani made his a tortured figure from the outset and the choice of costume (with Nadir having tattoo sleeves and battered clothing) making him look rather suspect from the get-go. There were rarely any smiles throughout the evening except in the scenes with Leila. But what really made this Nadir a winner in this viewer's eyes was Polenzani's glorious singing. Throughout the famed aria "Je crois entendre encore," his voice was a delicate thread moving throughout the high tessitura with elegance and poise. The sustained high notes were beautifully mixed in head voice, leaving the listener with a sense of rapture. It really nailed the sublimity of Nadir's memory as well as its dreamlike quality. There was a purity here that expressed longing and sadness, giving the listener a sense of loss for this character. This was starkly contrasted with the more intense and passionate vocal display in the duets, Polenzani showcasing a virile weight in his singing, yet always maintaining the polished and sweet nature of his voice.
Mariusz Kwiecien portrayed his power as Zurga, his voice defined by the heft and emphatic declamation. He was imposing, but also warm and lively on stage, giving an aura of a ruler that knows how to get people to love him. He and Polenzani struck up a strong chemistry during their initial duet, their voices both sweetened to a mezzo voce throughout. While he had tremendously powerful accentuating during his moments of rage, there was finesse in his aria at the start of act three, his phrasing of the passage doing what felt like a gradual diminuendo as Zurga reconsiders letting his friend die. One could feel him slowly loosening his grip and prepare himself to show mercy. The scene between him and Damrau may have been the showstopper of the night with the two duking it out vocally on stage. Kwiecien's voice was at its most viscerally forceful, bring out Damrau's dramatic best all the same.
In the pit, Gianandrea Noseda took his time with the luxurious melodies that Bizet's opera's provide. The prelude had an expansiveness to it that established the calm before the furious emotional storm about to take place, the violins delicate. However the rhythmic accompaniment in the viola's was prominent throughout, hinting at the pain to follow and haunting the overall serene quality of the playing. The tempi were slow throughout, but there were certainly moments where Noseda was unafraid to rip through the music with an energetic pulse. Nowhere was this more present than during the moment where the villagers rush into the shrine, agitated after the storm. At the end of the opera, the furious string passages that follow the villagers rushing to their homes were propulsive, yet filled with clarity. It was polished playing from the Met Opera orchestra all the way through.
Props also go to the remaining cast and chorus members, most notably Nicholas Teste who made his Nourabad a fierce and somewhat menacing figure.
Ultimately, the beautifully nuanced storytelling, glorious cast members and ravishing play from the Met Opera orchestra and chorus made the most compelling argument that the "Pecheur de Perles" needs to be on the stage of this famed opera house more often. Once this run is over, one can only hope that it will not be another 100 years before audiences can enjoy its glorious melodies once again.
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