This is the latest installment in my highly popular series of Opera reviews, based on the “Met Live in HD” series. This wonderful technology offers opera-lovers the ability to experience a live opera matinee in the comfort of an IMAX movie theater, with superb sound (except for occasional technical glitches – and yes, I’m talking about YOU, Young Werther!), not to mention additional bennies such as peeks behind the curtain, backstage interviews with the cast, and a seat with a cup-holder.
So. yesterday, the big IMAX show involved a relatively unknown opera by Georges Bizet, best known for his blockbuster “Carmen“. But as Met Orchestra Conductor Gianandrea Noseda stressed in his interview, Bizet’s work “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”) is NOTHING like his later work, “Carmen”. Neither musically, nor dramatically. Musically, Pêcheurs is a relatively short (under 3 hours), sleek, and stripped down work, utilizing simple but beautiful melodies and sometimes even the barest of orchestration.
The Show Is a Hit!
Both audiences and critics agree, that the Met production of “The Pearl Fishers” is a hit and deserves to take a more frequent place in the repertoire. The audience was agog with wonder as the overture began and the curtain first arose on a beautiful “underwater” scene. Two pearl divers, a man and a woman, plunge downward into the sea, kicking their legs with powerful butterfly strokes, surrounded by cocoons of air bubbles. The special effect emphasized a key plot point of the story: That this backwater town somewhere in Sri Lanka lives and dies from its annual Pearl Harvest.
Everyone in the audience wondered “How do they do that?” I just assumed that the entire underwater sequence involved a movie projection onto a screen. But no… During one of the backstage interviews during the first Intermission, the “pearl divers” were interviewed. They are both aerialist acrobats who were strapped into harnesses and taught to dive downward instead of upward. The water thing – yeah, that WAS a projection onto a screen.
Wagner would have killed to have this technology in his day: his Rhein Maidens were strapped into clunky harnesses and forced to sing while swaying precariously above the stage; oh, and he didn’t have movie projectors either. And having this technology is a HUGE plus for modern opera Directors. When it is used properly, I hasten to add – and yes I’m talking about YOU, unsuccessful and ridiculous Lego-World Ring Cycle of a few seasons back!
Technology was also used successfully later in the show, where a movie screen projection was used to portray the external facade of a run-down block of flats, a crummy housing development hovering precariously on the edge of the unpredictable Sea. Later, this block of flats is swept away by a Tsunami, also portrayed by a movie projection.
The main dramatic action of Act III occurs inside this block of flats. The setting emphasizes that this place is a Third World hellhole. Residents are packed like sardines into buildings with a box air conditioner in each window. Even the town’s Mayor, Zurga, has to get by with an old black-and-white TV with rabbit-ear antennas, and an old crappy computer that looks like it was obsolete already by 1979!
What Century Are We in, Anyhow?
Which raises the issue of when it is, or is not, acceptable to “modernize” the settings. Bizet had intended his story to take place in Ceylon of “ancient times”. But this radical production designed by Penny Woolcock, takes place in “modern times” – could be in the 1980’s, 1990’s – even yesterday! taking into account that these people are DIRT POOR and can only afford obsolete computers and other equipment.
Well, this issue is just a matter of taste, I suppose. People say there is no Right and Wrong. It’s just what works. When Director Patrice Chéreau broke all the rules of the Wagner Bayreuth Festival by setting his Ring Cycle in the 1870’s (or thereabouts), many purists scoffed, and yet IT WORKED!
When the Metropolitan opera staged “Prince Igor” as a World War I drama, with Polovetskian sabre dancers popping up like gophers from a poppy field, this was wrong. Staging Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 1960’s Las Vegas …. THIS WAS VERY WRONG! But okay, many people might have loved it, this is a matter of personal taste. As for “The Pearl Fishers” being set in modern day – I THINK it worked! Partly because the story itself is timeless and because … well, people in that part of the world still worship Hindu deities, still suffer from tsunamis and fires, still form love triangles, and still experience rage, jealousy, love, and friendship. And the drama is the thing, after all. That plus the gorgeous music!
Backstory – WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!
Being a stickler for a logical story line, I hereby attempt to re-tell most of the plot in chronological order. The libretto to the opera was written by two French guys named Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. The plot is surprisingly complex, which made me assume that it was based on a novel, or a play. But I can’t find that it was. It bothers me a bit that there are some gaping holes in the plot, as I will lay out below.
To tell the story in chronological order, I have to start with things that happened long before the curtain ever opened. Some of the things that I am about to lay out are plot points and twists which are revealed later, to surprise and shock the audience. Therefore, if you don’t want to read spoilers, then please skip this section.
- So, Once Upon a Time… In this timeless Sri Lankan village of Pearl Divers, there were two little boys, named Nadir and Zurga. Childhood friends and besties, they loved each other passionately as only children can. As they grew up, they became trained pearl divers as well.
- Then, something happened, which is never specified in the plot. Zurga became a fugitive, and had to go on the lam.
- Next, let us look at the girl, Leïla. She doesn’t live in this town, she lives in a distant village. All we know about her family life is that she had a mother. When she was just a child, let’s say, around 10 years old, she experienced a rather scary event. A grown man (who, in Act III, is revealed to be Zurga) was on the lam. A fugitive. It is never explained what he did or why he was on the run. But in his desperation, he saught sanctuary in the girl’s home, and she took him in and saved him. She promised him that she would hide him, and she kept her promise. The men who were pursuing Zurga questioned the little girl, even held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if she didn’t talk. But the girl held firm. She wouldn’t talk. Eventually the men went away, and Zurga was saved. As a token of his gratitude, the young Zurga gave the child a precious necklace, a pearl on a band. He told her that he was in her debt forever. She promised to wear the necklace always. She never knew the man’s name.
- Leïla narrates part of this story to the High Priest Nourabad in Act II. She is not bragging, she is just making a point to Nourabad, who questions her integrity, that she is a very trustworthy person. At that time, she still does not know that Zurga is the man she saved. Nor does Zurga know that this mysterious woman was the child who saved his life.
- Okay, and now we get to a key event in the backstory: Reunited again, after Zurga is no longer a fugitive (Why? another plot hole), the friends Nadir and Zurga make a trip to a Hindu temple in some distant village. They both get a glimpse of the mysterious High Priestess who serves the Goddess Shiva (yeah, it’s Leïla, all grown up now), and both men fall madly in love with her at first sight. Even though she is wearing a veil – but they get a glimpse of her magnificent eyes, and that’s enough. Two men loving the same girl – that never happens in opera, right?
Apparently, and remember that this is all back-story still, the romantic rivalry drove the two friends apart and even caused them to fight each other. In order to save their friendship, they had to take a vow TO EACH OTHER that neither would seek a relationship with the woman in question. They promised to just go home and act like they had never seen her.
Ah, but here’s the rub: Nadir lied! As we find out fairly early on, in Act I, he had secretly returned to the temple to seek out out the woman of his dreams. And not only that, but he snagged her! She returned his affections and fell in love with him too! With Nadir!
And now just one element remains to be told of the backstory, which is that Nadir ABANDONED Leïla. We are never told just how far their love had developed before he left: First Base, Second Base, Third Base? A Home Run?? The big theological question here being, is Leïla still a virgin? (This is important, as you will see later.) In any case, after he had been hanging out with her about a year, Nadir left her and returned to his native village. Where he told his curious friend Zurga some cock-a-mamee story, that he had spent the past year hunting jaguars and panthers in the jungle!
Act I: An Exercise In Epistemology
At this point, we are ready to open the curtain on Act I. And please keep in mind, that all the secrets and spoilers which I have revealed above, have not yet been mentioned to the audience. “The Pearl Fishers” is, if anything, an excercise in Epistemology. It is about things that are unknown, as well as things that are unknowABLE. These people live in a town that is teeming with secrets. In a story that is chock-full of surprises, reveals, and plot twists, it is hard to keep track of who knows what and when did they know it!
And this is the moment basically to introduce the Act I show-stopper duet, called the “Friendship Duet” between Nadir and Zurga. Bizet composed this song with the barest minimum of orchestral backup: At first just a flute and a harp, then a few other instruments chiming in later. There is something very special about the harmony of a tenor joining with a baritione voice. Every tenor and every baritone has this song in their repertoire for concert performances. In a backstage interview during the Intermission, tenor Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) revealed that he studied this duet as young as 17 and performed it many times in concert, not even knowing (because he had not yet worked through the full opera) that Nadir is lying his guts out while singing this gorgeous song. The lyrics being about how each man saw and loved the beautiful veiled woman in the temple, but DID NOT ACTUALLY TRY TO DATE HER. About which, we know that Nadir is lying!
[In this youtube clip, Nadir is sung by tenor Jonas Kaufmann; and Zurga by baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky].
As Act I progresses, the town’s local High Priest, Nourabad, a bass-baritone role performed by French singer Nicolas Testé, brings a new woman into town, to help them solve a particular problem. The pearl divers are scared to dive, because of a tsunami. The only way to prevent a tsunami is to hire a High Priestess of Shiva to chant and pray. The Priestess has to Pray the Tsunami Away. Nourabad outsources this job to a High Priestess from another town – yup, it’s Leïla. Now Leïla, when she arrives in town for this job, dwells in an epistemelogical fog, is completely unaware (1) that the man she saved as a little girl (=Zurga) is the Mayor of this town; or that (2) her boyfriend, who abandoned her (=Nadir) lives in this town. As far as Leïla is concerned, this is just another gig, and she needs the money. Nourabad has promised her, that if she prays the tsunami away, he will pay her with the best pearl of all the harvest of pearls brought up by the divers.
And I am forced to say something at this point about Nourabad. His name gives him away – he is a BAD guy! He, not Zurga, is the villain of this opera, as far as I am concerned. Nourabad is mean to Leïla from Day #1. He is an intolerant bigot, a religious fanatic, and a misogynist. He threatens Leïla and verbally abuses her. He doesn’t even provide her with a shack to live in, or a meal. After she has put in a hard night’s work, praying and chanting to keep the tsunami away, Nourabad forces her to sleep outdoors, on the dock. In Act III he will pour a can of gasoline over her head and attempt to set her on fire. What kind of man is that?
Act II: Reunited, and It Feels So Good!
In Act II, Nadir, having recognized Leïla underneath her veil, just can’t resist, and reunites with her. Leïla missed her lover so much, and they enjoy a passionate reunion right there on the dock. Despite the fact that Leïla had taken a vow to remain chaste and virtuous. Because, see, that’s one the rules of the game: Her prayers and incantations to Shiva only work if she is a virgin, unsullied by any man, and if her face remains covered. This is not optional, or a “nice to have” – it is an absolute job requirement. Which she has failed at, and she doesn’t even seem that guilty about it.
And speaking of veils, I felt sorry for German coloratura soprano Diana Damrau who had to sing most of her role with a veil covering her face – at times I was worried that she would suck it into her throat and choak herself. But no worries – Diana is a true pro as well as an opera legend. She is one of those virtuosos who can perform vocal tricks while lying flat on her back. A little thing like a veil will not impede her amazing pipes.
Returning to our love triangle – well, wouldn’t you know it, that nosy busy-body Nourabad sneaks back around and catches the guilty couple in flagrante delicto. At the exact same time, the tsunami starts to rage, and of course it’s Leïla’s fault. Nourabad summons the townspeople, and Zurga arrives too. Zurga is the Mayor, he needs to lead from behind. When Nourabad rips off Leïla’s veil, Zurga suddenly recognizes her – not as the little girl, of course, but as the mysterious woman in the temple, with whom both he and Nadir fell in love. And NOW HE KNOWS that Nadir lied to him while they were singing their beautiful virtuoso duet together. Both Nadir and Leïla have grossly violated their respective vows. Zurga decrees that they must both die. Zurga must kill his best friend as well as the woman he loves. It just doesn’t get more operatic than that!
Act III: Mariusz Struts His Stuff
Before we start, I have to mention that baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is considered a sex symbol in his native Poland, what with his masculine good looks and sexy voice. All of this is on display at the beginning of Act III. An emotionally tormented Zurga is winding down in his flat, which doubles as his campaign headquarters. Zurga changes his sweaty shirt, opens his fridge, pops a beer, watches some TV, then LIGHTS A CIGARETTE! Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe this is the first opera I have ever seen, where a soloist puffs on a cigarette while singing his aria. And Mariusz wasn’t faking it either – that was a real cigarette, and a real lighter. I wonder what the fire marshal thought of all this!
Next Leïla arrives – she had the local (whatever passes for law enforcement) bring her directly into Zurga’s home. In requesting an audience with Zurga, Leïla’s goal is to plead for Nadir’s life. Remember that Leïla doesn’t know (1) that Zurga is she man she rescued when she was a little girl, nor that (2) Zurga is secretly in love with HER. All she knows is that Zurga is THE POWER in this town, and that she will do ANYTHING to save her boyfriend.
The ensuing dramatic confrontation between Zurga and Leïla is magnificent theater, as well as a barn-storming duet.
It starts off well: Zurga’s rage has abated, the sight of Leïla almost mollifies him, and he is just about psychologically ready to pardon his friend. All Leïla had to do was reassure him that Nadir is innocent of all wrong-doing, that it was all just a big misunderstanding. Zurga WANTS to believe. Because (1) he doesn’t really want to kill his friend, and (2) he is still carrying a torch for Leïla herself. But, like I said, Leïla DOESN’T KNOW ANY OF THIS, so she just blunders on. She says exactly the wrong things: That she loves Nadir; that Nadir loves her back.
Zurga flies back into a rage. He attacks Leïla and tries to rape her. She fends him off, but now SHE is super-mad at HIM! The confrontation devolves into a knock-down drag-out face-spitting cat fight:
Leïla: “I hate you! I despise you! I loathe you!”
Zurga: “I hate you back! And we will proceed with the executions! Guards, take this woman away!”
But now comes the big twist. Knowing that she is being led to her death, Leïla removes the special pearl necklace, the one she always wears, but nobody ever sees, because she keeps it tucked into her bosom. She removes the necklace and hands it to one of Zurga’s servant girls, with instructions to send the necklace back home to her (=Leïla’s) mom.
But Zurga notices the necklace … and GASPS with astonishment! Yes – it is the very same necklace that he gave the little girl who saved his life! And he now realizes that Leïla IS that little girl, all grown up, and all nicely filled out. Recall that when Zurga gave the kid the necklace, he promised her that he would be in her debt forever. So, he can’t very well execute her now and still be able to look himself in the mirror tomorrow.
So, he must save her. But there is a hitch: Zurga might be the Mayor of this town, but he is not all-powerful. That rat Nourabad has the villagers all riled up, they are already filling their cans with gasoline, and it is doubtful that even Zurga can stop them now.
Therefore, Zurga resorts to an extreme measure – and this is the part of the story that I REALLY DON’T LIKE, because Zurga sneaks around and sets the whole town on fire. He then rushes to the docks and warns the townspeoples (who are in the process of pouring gasoline over Leïla and Nadir) to get back to their homes and save their children. (Which is why I don’t like this plot point – because Zurga endangered the town’s children. That’s just not cool.)
But be that as it may, the townspeople abandon their bloodthirsty plans, mid-execution, and rush off to save their homes and kids. Giving Zurga the opportunity to untie the two gasoline-soaked lovers and bid them Happy Trails, as they flee the carnage they themselves have helped to create.