Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Season Review: Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Alexander Elliott Makes Successful Debut Alongside Equally Brilliant Pretty Yende & Javier CamarenaBy Logan Martell
On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, the Metropolitan Opera opened this season’s production of Georges Bizet’s “Le Pecheurs de Perles.” This was the third time that the Bizet opera was revived at the Met after the successful showcase a few seasons ago starring Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien.
And was the case during that run, this year’s take on the exotic opera was fertile soil for the artistic and musical direction of the production, which the company seized upon in breathtaking ways.
Beneath the Surface
Penny Woodcock’s production achieves much in its artistic direction. It places the story in a vague time and location, with objects such as lamps and a rabbit-eared television set to give a hint, but the overall dilapidation of the fishing village felt almost post-apocalyptic; a prominent but damaged billboard in the background suggested this shanty town had once been a more hospitable area.
Despite the squalor and brine of the fishing village, there was much beauty to be found, the scenes at night saw the high buildings become shrouded, reminiscent of towering rock formations, yet punctured by many lights from the many windows of the tightly-packed community.
The attention to water was employed to gorgeous ends. The overture featured a projection which took the audience beneath the surface of the sea. The repetitions of a melodic theme saw a diver plunge below the surface, coming into view on the measure’s downbeat.
An aquatic ballet ensued with dancers behind the screen swam about while suspended in the air; the naturalness and fluidity of this opening sort of dance beautifully set the tone for the rest of the performance. Given the power of the sea over the lives of the villagers, a fair amount of space was often provided between the structures of the set to establish a sort of barometer for nature’s wrath.
The billowy fabrics of the water became more agitated when the passions of Leila and Nadir rose during their private meeting at night in Act two, and while it eased down after the two began to consummate their love, the arrival of Nourabad and the arrest of the lovers threw it back into a rising storm; to close this act, the projection is again used, this time to conjure a tidal wave which seemingly washed over the village and into the audience.
In the role of Nadir, tenor Javier Camarena established a gripping power early in the performance which held fast through the storm of events. Being the less-faithful of the two friends, his Nadir bore an urgency that was reflected by his brief but passionate outbursts of vocal color.
His Act one aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” was one of the evening’s highlights as Camarena beautifully mixed power and delicacy to intoxicating effect. After delivering the lyrics even softer after they repeat, Camarena revealed his pearl of a spinto quality which drove home the infatuate heights experienced by Nadir, and drew fervent applause from the audience.
Surprisingly, this night saw the role of Zurga played by two baritones. The first, Mariusz Kwiecien, regrettably withdrew after the first act due to illness. Despite this, his time onstage was well-handled; after being elected chief, he bore his duty with a firm but kind disposition as seen by Kwiecien’s expressions and vocal texture. During the famous duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” he and Javier Camarena were united in their vocal harmonies, despite the direction placing them on opposing ends of the stage, with the rift of the waters between them. After the troubled shift of their sparring phrases, their rejoining to close the number was met with applause which nearly stopped the show.
For the rest of the evening, Zurga was played by baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, whose entrance during the storm of the second act made for a tempestuous debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Despite being thrown into the ensuing chaos, Elliott’s heightened emotion made for a mostly smooth transition between performers; one difference I noted seemed to be that Elliott slightly bent his tall frame as if weighed down by inner conflict, causing him to loom over most of the other performers and physically suggest his authority over them.
Given Zurga’s time on stage for most of Act three, this gave the audience significant time to experience Elliott’s musical and dramatic talents. With the set being that of a waterlogged office containing a desk, shelves of worn books, and a single lamp on the desk, this creates an atmosphere almost like a police interrogation for Leila’s appeal to the chief. Elliott’s interactions with Pretty Yende were highly-charged given his alternations between affection and antagonism, and his voice carried a resonance which was not lost even with a partner as sonorous as Yende.
As the priestess Leila, Pretty Yende displayed the many beautiful facets of her jewel-like voice, thanks to the exotic melodies of Bizet’s score. The audience first sees Yende as a projection upon a wave during the act 1 duet, before making an auspicious, veiled entrance on a tiny metallic boat. As Kwiecien’s Zurga swears her to her new duty, Yende’s responses of “I swear” seemed to melt into the line of the flute. Her numbers toward the end of the first act provided ample moments for Yende to pour forth enchanting tones like a beckoning siren. When met in secret by Nadir, she recoils at first from his advances, with Yende turning away in sync with the sudden beat of a drum from the orchestra.
During her Act two aria “J’etais encore enfant,” Yende sang while holding her veil over her head, towards the audience and away from Nourabad, as if emphasizing her hiding of the fugitive man. She allowed the veil to fall over her head when singing of the promise made with the fugitive; while this prevented the audience from seeing Yende’s face as she continued to vocalize, it was interesting to hear the many sounds coming from her veiled figure.
After her arrest, her exchanges with Elliott’s Zurga were made all the more jarring given the contrast between the modern-but-damaged office and the oriental costume of Yende. This clash of passions also saw Yende deliver a lovely series rising quadruplets as she pleaded for clemency for Nadir; all of this was eventually concluded with Yende, being led off to her execution, rejoicing with a crystalline hue in her voice as she sang the phrase “the gates of Heaven open for me!”
Wednesday’s performance of “Le Pecheurs de Perles” was full of highly enjoyable surprises, most notably the innovative beauty of Penny Woolcock’s production, and the striking debut of Alexander Birch Elliott. Given the number of risks involved throughout, such as the effects with water and even fire, there was much reward when they succeeded. Add to this the proven talents of Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena, and it created a mixture of safety and uncertainty truly fitting for the themes within Bizet’s opera.