BIZET Les Pêcheurs de Perles
In this performance from the New York Met, a co-production with English National Opera, the setting is not Ceylon in ancient times. We are in present-day Sri Lanka: a shanty town on the sea shore, the costumes a mixture of traditional and modern. The English director, Penny Woolcock, has made the sea what she calls the opera’s fourth leading figure. As the storm breaks at the end of Act 2, towering waves seem to threaten the very existence of the community, perhaps an allusion to the tsunami of 2004. This is very effective, but even more breathtaking (pun not intended) is the video projection during the Prelude: three (live) divers gracefully swimming in the blue depths, complete with realistic bubbles.
The action opens with a lively, nervy chorus, the tenors rather stretched by the high tessitura of the slower middle section. The entry of Zurga and his election as leader are swiftly followed by the unexpected arrival of the long-absent Nadir. The latter’s account of his exploits, and a reprise of the chorus, are followed by the famous ‘Au fond du temple saint’, where Nadir and Zurga recall how they both fell in love with a beautiful girl at a shrine in Kandy. This led to their falling out; now they celebrate the renewal of their friendship. Significantly – because, unbeknown to Zurga, Nadir is actually pursuing their ‘goddess’ – they stand apart till the end of the duet. Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien sing euphoniously, perhaps a little matter-of-factly. Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill it ain’t. Traditionalists will be glad to know that the inauthentic reprise of the big tune is retained.
When a veiled woman arrives to pray for the pearl fishers, Nadir recognises her: it is Leïla, the cause of the quarrel with his friend. Polenzani sings ‘Je crois entendre encore’ soulfully, culminating in a beautifully floated top C. Diana Damrau is lightness itself in her song to the gods and spirits that turns into an acknowledgement of love. Later, introduced by romantic horn-calls, she sings a rhapsodic ‘Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre’. Bizet’s storm music when the lovers are discovered is not very inspired, but Gianandrea Noseda gets vivid singing and playing from the chorus and orchestra.
Zurga’s ‘tent’ in Act 3 is an office: filing cabinets, files everywhere, laptop, fridge, a television set. Kwiecien is superb in an impassioned ‘O Nadir, tendre ami’, though the effect is not enhanced by his lighting a cigarette at the end. The original conclusion is restored, Zurga not dying but watching the flames of the fire that he started to allow the lovers to escape. The opera is no masterpiece, but this production should win it many new friends.