I caught up with the Met’s new Les Pêcheurs de Perles by way of the HD theater transmission. I was happily surprised – not by the opera, which I know and love (see below), but by how flexible the work turns out to be dramatically. I would have said that Pecheurs is a prime example of 19th century European interest in exquisite orientalism, and that anything that takes us out of that world would break it.
Director Penny Woolcock captures some of that exquisiteness – especially in the opening, an astonishing aerial ballet that effectively suggests pearl diving. But she sets Pêcheurs in contemporary Sri Lanka, and there’s a fair amount of underlying grit and grime.
I don’t find all of Woolcock’s staging ideas equally effective, but many of them are terrific. It works so well, I think, because although it’s a modern setting, there’s still something exotic and distant about it – the sort of sinister glamour that we’d see in a film noir set in Hong Kong or Morocco.
** Pêcheurs is a damn good opera. My first exposure was (as for so many of us, I think) through a few famous excerpts – Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore,” Leila’s “Comme autrefois,” and of course the Nadir/Zurga duet, “Au fond du temple saint.” Years later, I finally saw Pêcheurs at Opera Philadelphia, with Mary Dunleavy, William Burden and Nathan Gunn, all scantily costumed – which proved a feast for eye and ear.
** Woolcock’s production at the Met, compellingly conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, is further evidence that it’s also a dramatically compelling, and – even beyond the famous excerpts – wonderfully melodic work.
** No surprise, but there’s little trace of the traditional French style – high, forward vocal placement – to be found among the cast. This is an international house Pêcheurs writ large. Within that model, it’s hard to imagine a better one.
** In a cast of fine singers, Matthew Polenzani wins the day. He, too, is not French – listeners who fell for Nadir’s music through one of the great performances by Alain Vanzo will be aware this is something different. But Polenzani’s fuller, more refulgent singing is simply gorgeous, phrases sculpted with a superb sense of line, and his upper register – especially in pianissimi – is ravishing. Polenzani isn’t a great actor, but he’s comfortable on stage, and his sincerity always comes through. (Of course, in opera, singing itself is a form of acting – and by that definition, he’s brilliant!)
** Diana Damrau throws herself vigorously into the action, but the result is ungainly and hyperactive, with a lot of odd face-making. (I’m guessing this is less off-putting in the theater.) Vocally, she’s on much firmer ground – her crystalline, roundly limpid tone is a fine fit for Leila, she does some exquisite filigree work in the coloratura passages, and there’s only a trace of the scooping and sliding which have marred some of her previous performances in other roles.
** Marius Kwiecien is the best actor of the group – he knows the value of stillness, and his handsome, expressive face works well on camera. In fact, speaking of film noir – Kwiecien could have had a career in the 1940s, playing dark, charismatic second leads – which is pretty much perfect for Zurga. It took some time for his burnished baritone to find top form – in the early scenes, the tone was hooded, the words sometimes opaque. But the voice opened up in the second act, where, vocally and dramatically, he was very exciting.