For decades Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” was rarely ever performed anywhere. We would hear the famed “Friendship Duet” or get the occasional recording here and there, but seeing a staged performance was a thing of dreams.
But now opera lovers can enjoy a live performance of Bizet’s often-ignored work from the comfort of their living rooms. Mind you, the Metropolitan Opera’s new DVD release is not the only one on the market, but you would be remiss to find one with such luxury casting.
The Movie/Opera Star
In a production by Penny Woolcock, audiences get a chance to immerse themselves in a modern version of the tale of two Fisherman whose friendship is tested when a woman from the past comes to their village. Leïla, played by Diana Damrau, is at the core of the drama and Woolcock’s work alongside the German soprano emphasizes this point. Damrau, dressed in highly florid wardrobe amid more conservative modern garb from the rest of the cast, aptly transforms the priestess from a symbol to a human being flowing with emotion. Our introduction to her sees her face covered by a veil, her movements, and expression as caught on camera rather neutral and stiff. For the town, she is but a mere instrument, a thought never given to her humanity. Damrau’s singing in these opening passages, while lush in its sound, is not brimming with the energy and excitement we hear later on. If we turn toward the aria with which she concludes the first act of the opera, you can see the transformation. From a mere prayer, the phrasing polished and reserved, we see more spunk, the lines gaining in energy, Damrau’s vibrato increasing in intensity.
Her aria in the ensuing scene “Me voilà seule dans la nuit” showcases Damrau at her most delicate, the camera able to capture a sense of sensual longing in her gaze as she ponders her love for Nadir. By the time we see her vocal bout with Mariusz Kwiecien’s Zurga, the idea that she was once a delicate priestess is a foreign concept. Damrau throws herself about, her voice taking on a heavier complexity as she does everything possible to save her beloved.
Watching Damrau’s transformation across these two hours is a testament to her brilliant artistry, but also makes a case for the opera’s dramatic strength.
The Tale of Two Fishers
As Nadir, Matthew Polenzani gives a polished vocal account. It is almost impossible to speak only about his performance in isolation as a lot of what we experience about his character is in relation to Zurga, portrayed by Mariusz Kwiecien. The two, of course, are introduced through a famous friendship duet. They sing the same great melody and yet they could not be further apart in every other way. As Polenzani astutely points out in an interview included on the DVD, Nadir is lying to his best friend about his oath. Where Polenzani’s singing and acting are notable for his delicate temperament, Kwiecien is more explosive, his movements more present and his voice thunderous. During Nadir’s famous aria, “Je crois entendre encore” Polenzani’s tone is hushed and delicate, falsetto notes employed during the climaxes. Kwiecien’s aria is an equally subdued affair, but you always get the sense from watching and listening that an explosion is imminent. When it finally comes in the ensuing scene with Damrau, it is exhilarating.
Both men are conflicted, though, in Polenzani’s interpretation, Nadir’s love for Leïla wins the day without minor incident. In Kwiecien’s case, we see him struggle throughout the duet with Leïla, but also see him make the switch quickly at the tail-end of their scene together.
Gianandrea Noseda, who conducted the work for the first time during this run back in 2016, leads a strong account of the music, the balance between everyone coming through clearly in the soundtrack. The prelude is particularly wonderful, the ebb and flow of the music mirroring water. We feel immersed in this musical deluge, taken to a world we have perhaps never experienced. Noseda notes in the DVD that Bizet’s music perfectly describes the different elements at work; Noseda and the Met Orchestra are so privy to the score’s details that that statement will make perfect sense as you watch and listen.
A Grade-A Production
The overall mise-en-scene is brilliantly conceived, particularly when drawing contrasts between Nadir and Zurga. Dressed in rather disheveled clothing and sporting a sleeve tattoo, Nadir is far from your prototypical operatic hero. In fact, when compared with the more elegant attire of Zurga, the divide between the two becomes paramount. We are not only seeing their incompatibility as friends but in a socio-political context. The water imagery is probably the focal point of the production, the divers at the beginning a spectacle to behold and the tsunami at the climax of the second act a riveting visual effect. It is highly recommended that you watch this on the largest screen you can muster to truly get the sense of grandeur these visuals elicit.
This DVD is a must-buy, but there are a few bones to pick with the overall production. In the hands of video director Matthew Diamond and his team, the editing and camera work is unstable, distracting and often lacking in dramatic depth or understanding. The opening is quite possibly the most discipline the team shows in the entire video. With nothing else to film but the majesty of the effect of divers in the sea, the camera remains on a wide shot for the duration, letting the viewer take it all in without interruption. But once the effect ends and the chorus enters the stage, we are greeted with a barrage of impatient editing. Diamond lingers on shots for no time at all, giving the viewer little time to process much information. I got the sense that he wanted to jump around the chorus to show the diversity and range of characters. Unfortunately, that seems to be his only idea, which he repeats for several minutes at a time without new insight or information.
The wide shot is poorly employed throughout the evening, especially in this opening scene. Its primary purpose in this opera is to showcase scope or emphasize a big stage effect (i.e. the tsunami). In the latter case, holding the shot so the viewer can take in the visual information or returning to it to build tension is a strong move and the director manages it throughout. But in the former case, to show the scale, the return to the shot feels like filler most of the time, taking the viewer away from more interesting information. Once you have seen the grandeur of the stage, returning to it without any real motivation feels unnecessary. Overuse of a single effect ultimately makes it lose that very power. This is a technique used in almost all Met Live in HD broadcasts and one hopes that future HDs will be more discreet in its employment.
Now we move on to the non-stopped cutting on action with little to no regard for music. It is not fair to compare video directors, but it is impossible not to notice the stylistic shift that Met broadcasts have undergone since Brian Large stopped directing these shows. Under his control, edits resulted from musical motivation – a new phrase or dramatic shift in the music would allow for a seamless transition. Instead, it seems that any minor movement from an actor, no matter how small, is a reason for a cut. Once again, the more the effect becomes used, the less interesting it becomes when it feels so haphazard. We rarely ever get edits to emphasize dramatic shifts in the music and most of the edits we do get actually undermine it. Every time someone makes an entrance, Diamond is compelled to cut right to them walking in, even if that very moment it is not the dramatic focus. Zurga interrupts the mayhem that results from the discovery of Leïla and Nadir’s affair. Instead of following Bizet’s music and cutting right to Zurga at the moment he takes hold of the scene, Diamond cuts to him as he marches onto the stage, sucking the musical-dramatic surprise that Bizet explicitly outlines out of the moment.
The best directing from Diamond coincidentally comes during Nadir’s aria, which is probably the section that sees patience from the camerawork and trust in the performer. Polenzani does little in way of movement, so Diamond remains on a close-up for the majority of the aria. The same goes for the dramatic scene between Damrau and Kwiecien, where close-ups are employed the entire time, keeping the audience in the middle of the action without distracting angles interfering in the drama to remind us that we are watching a stage.
Ultimately Diamond’s job is to get the drama across and while it gets the job across, one cannot feel that this package with these stars deserves a keener eye behind the camera. One that is just as passionate about the drama and music as the performers we are witnessing.
Despite the shortcomings of the visual direction, it must be emphasized that this is a must-buy DVD simply because the music, cast, and production are too good to pass up. Rarely has this music been performed so gloriously in a production that astutely tells Bizet’s beautiful tale.