If Georges Bizet had not composed Carmen—one of the three or four greatest operas ever written—perhaps his earlier opera, Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), would be better known. As it is, however, this hauntingly beautiful work has remained at the margins of the repertoire; indeed, the Metropolitan Opera’s last staging of the piece was in 1916. The Met has finally corrected that century-long lacuna with a new production that opened on New Year’s Eve. Predictably, the setting was updated to modern times, but the damage was minimal. The musical values, thanks to a stellar cast and conductor (Matthew Polenzani, Diana Damrau, Mariusz Kwiecien, and Gianandrea Noseda) were superb, revealing the mesmerizing melodic richness of this neglected gem. A listener encountering The Pearl Fishers for the first time in the Met’s new staging can only exclaim: “Where have you been all my life?”
Bizet wrote The Pearl Fishers in 1863 at the age of 25. He had won Paris’s prestigious Prix du Rome five years earlier, but The Pearl Fishers would be his first major commission and only his second opportunity to see his work on stage, despite a flurry of opera projects over the previous decade. The commissioning theater, the important Théâtre Lyrique, chose the libretto: the story of a love triangle set on a storm-drenched Hindu village in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India). In a twist on the usual love triangle structure, the two male suitors are bosom buddies. They had both fallen in love from afar with a vestal virgin years before the story begins, but they had foresworn pursuing her in order to preserve their friendship. Only one of the friends kept his vow, however. That same priestess of Brahma has now arrived at the friends’ fishing village, unleashing all the destructive power of Eros that the friends had hoped to avoid.
The remote setting and Hindu iconography of The Pearl Fishers was pitched to the nineteenth-century French passion for Oriental exotica, and an audience of that period would have been more tolerant of the plot’s improbable coincidences and repetitious action. Nevertheless, years later, one of the libretto’s authors, Eugene Cormon, would confess: “Had we known of the talent of M. Bizet, we would never have given him our white elephant.” The fact that Bizet managed to turn the libretto’s frequently vapid verse into gripping drama is a testament to his theatrical imagination.
Reviewers misunderstood The Pearl Fishers’ music entirely—with one notable exception. Only the always perceptive Hector Berlioz grasped the score’s loveliness. Bizet bore up manfully under the critical sniping. Despite the lack of critical acclaim, The Pearl Fishers played 18 times at the Théâtre Lyrique—a respectable run—then disappeared until after Bizet’s death in 1875. The posthumous popularity of Carmen triggered renewed interest in the opera and it was sporadically revived in Europe and the U.S., but it has always remained overshadowed by Bizet’s masterpiece.
The first question that naturally comes to mind is: Does The Pearl Fishers sound like Carmen? The answer is: not overtly. The opera’s wind-writing, sensually woven around the human voice, the foreboding string tremolos, and the way a vocal line may tumble downward, anticipate moments in Carmen, but nothing in The Pearl Fishers—or any other opera, for that matter—comes close to the heat-seeking missile of carnality that is Carmen herself and her blazing effect on a score. The Pearl Fishers is a more pensive, melancholy work, pervaded by water rhythms rather than flamenco staccato. With Carmen, Bizet virtually defined Spanish music for a European audience years before Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz jumpstarted Spain’s musical renaissance. By contrast, there is not a hint of actual Indian music in The Pearl Fishers; the cymbals, triangle, and tambourine summon a generic Asiatic world, and only intermittently at that.
The Pearl Fishers adumbrates other composers’ work as much as Bizet’s crowning opera. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Verdi’s Don Carlo, and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, among other works, have proleptic echoes in The Pearl Fishers. A jaunty chorus with soprano fioritura—“Ah! chante, chante encore!”—anticipates Emmanuel Chabrier and looks back to Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims, though Bizet actually repurposed the chorus from one of his own comic operas. In fact, like all frugal composers, Bizet liberally stole from himself. The wistful oboe solo that opens the adagio movement in Bizet’s precocious Symphony #1 reappears in a truncated form at the start of an offstage serenade in The Pearl Fishers; a “Pleni sunt coeli” from a rejected Te Deum becomes a thrilling hymn to Brahma, in an early manifestation of multiculturalism.
One number from The Pearl Fishers has broken out into wider circulation on the concert stage: a gentle baritone-tenor duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” between the two male friends, Zurga (in the Met’s production, Mariusz Kwiecien) and Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), known today simply as “The Pearl Fishers duet.” After a shimmering violin overlay that looks forward to “En fermant les yeux” from Massenet’s Manon, Zurga and Nadir recall the vision of the temple priestess that had so enchanted them years earlier, to a whispering flute and harp accompaniment. The duet’s main melody will become a motif throughout the opera. (Stephen Sondheim would ring a sardonic change on the dramatic situation of two men sharing a vision of female beauty in the song “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.)
When just one number from a work becomes known, the assumption is that only that number deserves to be known. That belief is particularly pernicious here. Nadir’s stunning romance, “Je crois entendre encore,” in which he recollects his own private search for the priestess, is almost decadent in the languorous sensuality of its harmonies, set over a hypnotic barcarolle rhythm. Brief bursts of string filigree fall like shooting stars around the vocal line. A duet between Nadir and his beloved, the priestess Leila (Diana Damrau), “Ton coeur n’a pas compris le mien,” is another gorgeous nocturnal water piece, introduced by a sinuous clarinet solo that gives way to gently panting strings.
But the most powerful stretch of the opera involves Leila and the love triangle’s odd man out: Zurga. Just before this extended scene, Nadir and Leila’s illicit alliance had been discovered, leading the villagers to bay for their execution in a slashingly syncopated chorus. Zurga initially repulsed the crowd’s blood lust and absolved the guilty pair. But then the high priest tore off Leila’s veil, which had heretofore kept her identity hidden. Suddenly realizing not only that this veiled priestess was the same woman that he and Nadir had fallen in love with years ago but that Nadir had broken his vow, Zurga furiously reverses himself and announces that the couple will die. Now, as Act III opens, Zurga is alone in his tent, filled with pity for Nadir and remorse for his burst of jealousy. His anguished soliloquy, in its sense of isolation and vulnerability, looks forward to King Filippo’s “Ella giammai m’amò” from Don Carlo. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Pearl Fishers librettist Cormon wrote a play that was one of Verdi’s sources.) Leila arrives at Zurga’s tent to beg for Nadir’s life (announced by a walking line in the double basses that even recalls the Grand Inquisitor’s entrance to Filippo’s chamber.) Leila and Zurga express their wariness toward each other in a pair of suave interlocking asides, woven together as if in a canon. In one of the plot’s many murky improbabilities, Leila’s expression of love for Nadir comes as a surprise to Zurga. Again filled with rage, he again condemns them to death, revealing to Leila for the first time that he loves her. Their voices rise in wave after wave of raw emotion, punctuated with thunderous timpani rolls, the keys modulating ever upwards, a scene of harrowing musical and emotional intensity equal to any Verdian catharsis. Finally, as the strings tremble in expectation, Leila spits out: “je te maudis, je te hais and je l’aime à jamais” (I curse you, I hate you, and I will always love him). Leila has become the embryo of Carmen, her struggle with Zurga anticipating Carmen’s final battle with Don Jose.
The listener is spent after this titanic battle of wills and apparently Bizet was, too. The musical writing loses force after this scene; a final duet between Nadir and Leila, “Ah! Je vais mourir heureux à tes côtés!” is insipid. Perhaps inspiration drained from Bizet as he faced the libretto’s preposterous conclusion, in which Zurga torches the village in order to allow Leila and Nadir to escape unseen. It’s no wonder that posthumous editions of the opera essayed different endings, but these were even more absurd than the original.
Director Penny Woolcock, a Brit born in Argentina with a background in stage and film, dispensed with most of the libretto’s scene directions that would have so enthralled the Parisian theatergoer. Gone are the bamboo huts, the ruined pagodas standing atop rugged promontories, and the wild, arid beach. Instead, she places the action in a contemporary shanty-town where traditional tribal customs cohabit with modern technology and consumerism. Choristers in an amalgam of T-shirts, baseball caps, and saris crowd the stage in the dark first scene; they smoke, read tabloids, and weave baskets. Electric lights are strung precariously overhead; a large billboard hawks a cosmetic product. A video projection during a later scene change shows a dreary apartment block, stained by rust from window air conditioning units. Zurga’s tent becomes a dingy bureaucrat’s office, crammed to the ceiling with dusty file cabinets and folders that attest to the Indian predilection for red tape. He grabs a brewski from a mini-bar during his soliloquy and flips on his small TV.
Traditional productions of The Pearl Fishers have used the orchestral prelude and first scene as an occasion for Indian-inspired dance; given how ballet-crazed the nineteenth century French opera public was, such choreography likely comports with the original intent of the opera. The Met’s production (first mounted by the English National Opera) has no dancing in the conventional sense; indeed, the slum is so crowded that there would be no space for it. But Woolcock’s most inspired idea was to create a virtual underwater ballet during the prelude: two live dancers, suspended on invisible wires, slowly descend through the cavernous space above the Met’s stage as if they were pearl fishers diving through the ocean; rays of sunlight penetrate through the dusky atmosphere and radiate around them. This magical image—created by design team 59 Productions—is perfectly suited to the dreamlike overture and will undoubtedly be the tableau from the production that most stays with viewers. Unfortunately, Woolcock later repeated the diving conceit, sending a Nadir look-alike to paddle above the back of the stage while Leila sang of his succoring love for her. The beautiful here became simply silly.
Woolcock’s fidelity to her Third World milieu produced one major interpretive mistake. In the libretto’s opening scene, Zurga announces that it is time to choose a new village leader. The villagers nominate Zurga himself in gratitude for his friendship. Initially surprised, he accepts. In the Met’s version, Zurga arrives at the slum to hand out cash bribes to the potential voters. When the tribe selects him, he sarcastically feigns surprise, smirking a “Who me?” with an ironic shrug of his shoulders. But Zurga is not some corrupt Third World pol; his lineage lies in the opera seria tradition of the noble ruler who grapples with the conflict between his private passions and public duties. Woolcock’s cynical take on the nomination scene is at odds with the man who later castigates himself so movingly for his jealous vindictiveness.
The production’s updating also generates a breach of political correctness. When the high priest Nourabad uncovers the sacrilegious liaison between Leila and Nadir, the villagers scream frantically for their blood. In the final scene they douse the sinful couple with gasoline in happy anticipation of a blazing auto-da-fe. Now it may in fact be the case that today’s Third World residents are eager to burn temple priestesses at the stake for a romantic transgression. The prevalence of honor killings in that part of the globe makes this reading entirely plausible. But it is unlikely that Woolcock, whose previous work highlights the plight of the “marginalized,” intended such a commentary on contemporary Third World mores.
Despite these incongruities, Woolcock avoided the most grotesque self-indulgences favored by contemporary opera directors. The Pearl Fishers just begs for a juvenile Regietheater director to inject a homoerotic element into Zurga and Nadir’s friendship. Instead, Woolcock kept their love for each other exactly as it is in the libretto—brotherly. (This respect for the characters’ emotional relationships as originally intended has so far been true of the Met’s other updated productions under general manager Peter Gelb.) Woolcock does have Zurga briefly attempt to rape Leila during their confrontation scene, in what felt like a feminist take on the male sex drive. But such raw sexual violence could also just be a foreshadowing of the imminent Verismo period in opera, which Carmen itself looked forward to. In the updating’s favor, it must be acknowledged that seeing Marius Kwiecien in a tight black T-shirt in the Act III duet, rather than a long Oriental robe and curly-toed silk shoes, gave the action a greater sense of immediacy.
The singing was luminous and inspired. American tenor Matthew Polenzani is a perfect fit for Nadir. He sang “Je crois entendre encore” with a heartbreaking simplicity, flawless legato, and sweet purity of tone. Some tenors have treated the role as if Nadir were a Wagnerian knight, lunging at their top register in full bray, and shamelessly prolonging their high notes. Giuseppe di Stefano’s version of “Ton coeur n’a pas compris le mien,” for example, is among the coarser of these misinterpretations. Polenzani, by contrast, honored the melancholy introspection of “Je crois entendre,” his high C was a sigh of sadness that then plunged into the dark, virile lower range of his voice. His ornaments were models of graceful elegance. Yet Polenzani could also be resonantly heroic when wooing Leila.
German soprano Diana Damrau, wrapped in gold-drenched Indian fabrics, gleefully tossed off cascades of trills, mordents, and arpeggios during Leila’s hymn to Siva, luxuriating in her unsurpassed coloratura brilliance. She was fierce and passionate in her battle scene with Zurga, moving from self-effacement to clarion rage. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien delivered Zurga’s soliloquy with persuasive power, his entire body oppressed by repentance and guilt, his rich intonation both beautiful and manly. He became a coiled vessel of fury in his electrifying duet with Damrau, letting out the dynamic throttle without ever jeopardizing the luxuriousness of his sound. Damrau’ s real-life husband, the French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé, sang the role of Nourabad the high priest with resonance and precision.
When Peter Gelb proposed The Pearl Fishers to conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Noseda was skeptical. Perhaps there was a good reason, he said, why the opera was so little known—including to Noseda himself. As Noseda perused the score for the first time, however, he jettisoned that hypothesis. In Noseda’s reading, the orchestral prelude was as hushed and mysterious as the twilight realm through which the pearl fishers were diving on stage; the confrontation scene roared with energy. Tempos throughout were moving and dynamic, but never rushed. Noseda clearly differentiated the instrumental lines—whether in the French horns, violas, or oboe—that wrapped around the voices. Special mention belongs to the timpani, foreboding in the prelude, hair-raising in Zurga’s tent. The Met chorus was typically muddy in its French pronunciation, but Noseda kept them rhythmically sharper than usual in the syncopations of their first vengeance chorus. Coordination between singers and the pit weakened in the opera’s very final moments, however.
The Met’s new production is a gift to music-lovers and a reminder of how many other buried treasures undoubtedly are waiting to be rediscovered.
Photo: Diana Damrau and Matthew Polenzani in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.