An unexpected debut sparks Met’s “Pearl Fishers” revival

Thu Nov 15, 2018 at 1:32 pm
Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena in Bizet's "xxx" at teh Metropolitan Opera. PHoto: Marty Sole

Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena in Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs de perles” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

At a storied repertory house like the Metropolitan Opera, the running counts for performances of major rep items get dizzyingly high: on any given night, an audience member is likely to attend the 1,367th showing of La Bohème, or the 886th of Rigoletto. 

It’s startling to look to the title page and see a number as low as 14 for an opera by a household-name composer. One of the newest additions to the Met’s repertoire, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, had its first revival with the company on Wednesday night, following its belated house premiere on New Year’s Eve 2015.

A mythic tale of a priestess caught in a love triangle, Les pêcheurs de perles (“The Pearl Fishers”) is worlds apart from Bizet’s celebrated final work, Carmen, the composer’s only other opera in the Met’s current rep. Whereas the latter is a long hit parade of memorable arias and scenes, each musically distinct, in Les pêcheurs he finds one sublime melody early on, which he returns to throughout the piece, injected as an extended motif at key moments for dramatic effect.

The first instance of that theme, the Act I duet “Au fond du temple saint,” is easily the opera’s most celebrated musical number, and it proved, not surprisingly, to be the highlight of the Wednesday night premiere. For its second-ever run of the piece, the Met has assembled a star trio, and this duet was a rich mesh of two starkly divergent voices—Mariusz Kwiecień’s roundly resonant baritone against Javier Camarena’s pealing tenor. With its blooming orchestration and stately pace, this is one of Bizet’s most stirring musical ideas, made even more so by the full-throated singing of two operatic A-listers.

None of the rest of the opera rises quite to the same level, and for all their talent, the principals were inconsistent on Wednesday. 

Kwiecień, in fact, didn’t even make it to the finish line as Zurga, the village chieftain: sounding more and more labored as the first act went along, he bowed out completely during the intermission. 

Alexander Birch Elliott

Alexander Birch Elliott

Alexander Birch Elliott stepped in to finish the role, making a memorable impression in his company debut. Zurga’s signature moment comes in Act III as he anguishes over his responsibility to punish his friend-turned-rival Nadir and Leïla, the woman he loves, for their secret tryst. Elliott gave a poignant reading of this scene, “Ô Nadir, tendre ami,” showing his grief at having to issue their fatal sentence, and sporting a powerful, brawny baritone. His ovation at the final curtain, the loudest of any of the leads, was well earned.

Pretty Yende’s performance as the errant priestess Leïla was an adventure in its own way–this was her first turn in the role, and a lack of familiarity may have been an issue, as her pitch was inaccurate in coloratura passages throughout the night. Early on, during her Act II aria “Me voilà seule dans la nuit,” there was a harder edge to her voice than usual, and she lacked her customary bloom. As she progressed through the ensuing duet with Nadir, Yende’s tone softened and loosened into the effortless flexibility that makes her best singing so exceptional. By the time she reached the Act III confrontation with Zurga she was in full stride, contrasting the rich tone of her desperate pleas with the fire of her parting curse.

Camarena, appearing as Nadir, was the most polished of the lead trio, though even he sounded slightly pinched in spots–his thrilling tenor is so reliable, it’s easy to take for granted that he’ll give unimpeachable performances every night. Nadir doesn’t show off the clarion ring of his top in quite the same way as the high-flying bel canto roles that have been Camarena’s calling card so far, but even so, the fact that he can feel so at home in such an unusual part is itself impressive. He gave a melting rendition of the Act I aria “Je crois entendre encore,” spinning the haunting little melody into long phrases and showing a gorgeous, cushioned soft voice, floating pianissimos with ease in a high range where many tenors would struggle to sing at full voice.

There’s only one supporting role in The Pearl Fishers, the priest Nourabad, which Nicolas Testé carried off admirably, cutting an imposing figure and showing a thundering bass-baritone with a texture dark and rough as charcoal. The Met chorus was in exemplary form, bringing power and fullness of tone even in their most intricate singing. Emmanuel Villaume gave a workmanlike reading of the score, ably holding the ensemble together, but in rushing the pace he failed to give the music much definition. Dramatic moments like the storm scene at the end of Act II fell limp.

The libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michele Carré is a flimsy mess to begin with, and the production by Penny Woolcock, though visually appealing, clarifies little. Woolcock moves the era from ancient Ceylon to modern Sri Lanka, putting us in the odd but interesting setting of a shanty-city constructed on piers and floating rafts–which makes the sudden appearance of a concrete-and-steel monstrosity as Zurga’s office for the top of Act III a bewildering incongruity. 

Woolcock does give us one remarkable image, however: the pearl-divers of the title, presented by dancers on wires, “swim” through the empty space of the stage behind a blue scrim, a spectacular effect that ranks among the most eye-popping theatrical stunts in the Met’s arsenal.

Les pêcheurs de perles runs through December 8 at the Metropolitan Opera. For the final performance, Amanda Woodbury sings the role of Leïla, and Raymond Aceto appears as Nourabad.

One Response to “An unexpected debut sparks Met’s “Pearl Fishers” revival”

  1. Posted Nov 23, 2018 at 1:22 pm by Peter Feldman

    The Pearl Fishers is not a great opera. Mefistofele and its Met production is much better work.

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