Fathom Events' Met Opera "Pearl Fishers": Cultured Under the Sea

Matthew Polenzani &The Cast of the Met Opera "Pearl Fishers"
(photo: Ken Howard)

It's been a while between mountings of Pearl Fishers by the Metropolitan Opera, namely a solid century. While another work by the same composer (that would be Bizet's Carmen) has endured through the years as a vastly more popular opera, this less familiar one has literally languished in relative obscurity, save for its widely beloved duet between a tenor and a baritone that is a mainstay of opera recitals. The reason for the infrequency of performance is often attributed the unevenness of its score and its implausible plotting (though the latter, it must be said, never seemed to hinder the acceptance of countless other operatic works with unlikely, incredible and/or downright silly libretti). In this present co-production with the English National Opera, the Met has provided a unique opportunity to appreciate the cultured pearls within this neglected work (though produced about a decade ago by Sarasota Opera in a fine version). As an illustration of its years in operatic limbo, in its last appearance on this stage, this opera headlined Enrico Caruso.

Given the rarity of its inclusion in the operatic repertoire, a brief synopsis would surely be more than appropriate. The setting, an unnamed village somewhere in the Far East in vaguely “ancient times” (originally set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), is that of a Hindu community with a virgin princess/priestess (aren't they all?), the lovely Leila (soprano Diana Damrau), dedicated to Brahma, the god of creation. She is, not coincidentally, subject to death if and when she ever loses her virginity. Years prior to the opera's first scene, she had been loved by two men, Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani) and Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), but since they were the best of friends, they each pledged not to pursue the princess. As the opera opens, Zurga has returned and been chosen as head of the village, and Nadir has unexpectedly returned to the village (having followed Leila). They both have mixed emotions about their triangular love, vowing to stay friends while wrestling with their common attraction to Leila, in the famous duet alluded to above, Au fond du temple saint, which ranges from religious ecstasy to elevated platonic love in their friendship, ending with sadness and a sense of loss. Yet once alone, Nadir confesses his obsession with Leila in the lovely aria Je crois entendre encore, and proceeds to seduce her. Discovered by villagers, they are both condemned to death by the high priest Nourabad (bass-baritone Nicolas Teste). As a tsunami threatens the village, Zurga sets it on fire to distract the people and enable the lovers to flee, torn between his love for both of them. He then awaits his fate once he is found to have started the fire. Love has conquered and been defeated at the same time.

It's a taut story (in just two hours) and, despite some wild coincidences, an enjoyable one. Director Penny Woolcock and Conductor Gianandrea Noseda have worked magic on the stage, as has the company credited with the Projection Design, 59 Productions; the pearl fishers diving under the sea were exquisitely choreographed, and the realistic tsunami depiction made a good argument for the sale of Dramamine at the concession stand. The Met Opera Chorus has never been more crucial, from the very start of the work, and rightly got its own curtain call. The principals didn't disappoint, from Damrau's wondrous coloratura to both Polenzani's and Kwiecien's solos and thrilling duet. Kwiecien is especially memorable in his acting and singing in his critical last scene with Damrau. With respect to costuming, the mixing of men in baseball hats and plaid shirts, while women wore more traditional if nondescript costuming while they exchanged peasantries, was distracting to say the least; no doubt the hodgepodge of allusions to past and present attire was intended to enhance the timelessness of the piece. (But then why feature a prominent map of Colombo, capital of Ceylon?). The set is just about perfect (if they would drop the television set and laptop) as is the lighting. In just about every aspect, this is a true triumph for the Met.

Pure love, betrayal, vengeance: they're all here, and in HD no less. It may have its flaws, but the compensations this opera offers make them seem insignificant. Operagoers should be eternally grateful for the chance to experience this previously unheralded little gem. From its resting place on the operatic shelf, this lovely work has finally been rescued. Aw, shucks.
Encore presentations will be broadcast in HD this Wednesday January 20th at a theater near you.

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