When word gets around, the sleeper hit of the Metropolitan Opera season could be the new production of Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”) that opened on Thursday night, a New Year’s Eve gala event. When a major house presents a new staging of a repertory staple, like Verdi’s “Otello” or, for that matter, Bizet’s “Carmen,” the creative team is under pressure to come up with something fresh, to make a statement that stands out. With a lesser-known work like “The Pearl Fishers,” generally deemed an appealing but flawed opera (patches of soaring music, a justly famous duet, colorful choral writing, but an uneven score with a stilted libretto), the challenge is different and more liberating: The production must make a case for the overlooked opera, must bring out its riches without refashioning its essence.
The British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, working with a dream cast (featuring the soprano Diana Damrau, the tenor Matthew Polenzani and the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), the great Met chorus and the formidable conductor Gianandrea Noseda, delivers in this sensitive and insightful production, originally created by the English National Opera in London, where it was first presented in 2010. The only previous performances of the opera at the Met were a century ago, in 1916.
Bizet was 25 in 1863 when the manager of the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris offered him a libretto for “The Pearl Fishers,” a makeshift effort with a plot steeped in Orientalist exotica and propped up by a couple of implausible coincidences. Set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka, today) in ancient times, the story tells of the fishermen Nadir and Zurga, who have been friends since childhood. We soon find out that, as young men, they both fell for an unattainable woman, Leila, a priestess of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. Rather than compete for her, they pledged to forget her and affirm their lasting friendship. When the opera opens, years have gone by. Nadir arrives unexpectedly, to the delight of Zurga.
Diana Damrau and Mariusz Kwiecien sing an excerpt from Penny Woolcock’s new production of Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”).Published OnJan. 1, 2016
In a bold stroke, Ms. Woolcock, who made her Met debut in 2008 directing John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” opens this production by bringing the title of the opera to life with theatrical magic that transforms the stage into a murky expanse beneath the sea. Behind a scrim with video projections (by 59 Productions) and lighting effects (by Jen Schriever), three actors dangling from unseen wires (costumed by Kevin Pollard as traditional pearl fishers), swim and dart about in the waters searching for oysters in the sea bed.
Ms. Woolcock’s updating of “The Pearl Fishers” works beautifully. She places the story in an unspecified Asian locale during modern times. When the scrim lifts, we see a coastal shantytown with multilevel, rickety wood platforms and a low dock with lapping water at the shoreline. (Dick Bird designed the sets.) The choristers portray the villagers, wearing a mix of traditional and modern clothing, some in saris and sandals, some in trousers and T-shirts, all in shades of earth and rust. There are people reading newspapers or fiddling with electric lights. But others are occupied with activities that have gone on unchanged for centuries: Women weave flowers into garlands; men burn incense; fishermen mend their nets. This could be a village in Bangladesh or Indonesia today.
In Ms. Woolcock’s reading of the opera, the sea is a major character. Though the fishermen depend upon it for their livelihoods, they fall victim to its power. In the opening chorus, the people voice their fears of the sea while singing rituals to chase away evil spirits. A priestess comes among them to pray for good fortune. That young woman is (you guessed it) Leila.
Zurga prods his townspeople into urgent business: A new village headman must be chosen. Mr. Kwiecien is an ideal Zurga. Singing with burnished sound and lyrical richness, he looks like a natural leader, handsome, confident and something of an operator. Many people hold up ready-made photos of Zurga, which suggests a stealth campaign has been underway. Chosen by acclamation, Zurga makes clear what this means in a few phrases Mr. Kwiecien delivers with cagey intensity. “So, you are giving me complete authority?” he asks. Yes, the villagers assure him.
Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” with Mariusz Kwiecien, center; Diana Damrau (draped with a scarf); and Nicolas Testé, standing behind her.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Mr. Polenzani makes a poignantly believable Nadir, who arrives soon after the election of his old friend. Nadir has secretly followed Leila to the village. First, though, he reunites with Zurga during the great duet of friendship, “Au fond du temple saint.”
In this piece, the men reaffirm their promise to avoid Leila. To young men like Nadir and Zurga, a bond of friendship would have been a life-defining attachment. Yet, from the way this well-known duet is staged here, the strains of such a pledge are made apparent.
At first the men sing from separate sides of the stage, each lost in memories of the alluring Leila. But as they turn toward each other, they join together. Their ardent, soaring performance, supported by the glowing playing Mr. Noseda drew from the orchestra, brought fresh urgency to the familiar music.
Later in this act, when Nadir is alone, he confronts the truth in the enraptured aria “Je crois entendre encore.” Despite his pledge, Nadir did for a time have an illicit romance with Leila; he still yearns for her. Mr. Polenzani sang this haunting aria of remembrance with wondrous lyrical tenderness while conveying the music’s gently swaying gait. And if you think it’s impossible for a tenor to cap phrases of a dreamy aria with melting, pianissimo high notes, report to the Met to hear Mr. Polenzani demonstrate how this is done superlatively.
A scene from "The Pearl Fishers."CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Ms. Damrau brings brilliant coloratura agility, radiant sound and charisma galore to the role of Leila. Her intensity comes with risks, since Leila is a virgin priestess who must keep her vows on pain of death, an edict enforced by the high priest Nourabad (Nicolas Testé, a fine bass-baritone), who accompanies her. In Act II, when Leila and Nadir, having reunited, sing an impassioned, fraught duet, Ms. Damrau’s body twitches with spasms as her character’s suppressed longings burst out. At times her gestures were a little histrionic. Still, Ms. Woolcock makes explicit what’s taking place by having Nadir unwrap the layers of saris and skirts that Leila wears. And Ms. Damrau sang dazzlingly.
The lovers are discovered and condemned to death. At the end of the act, a violent storm breaks out, sending the villagers into peals of anguished singing. Video images suggest a tsunami-like deluge, a vivid reminder of the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that caused tens of thousands of deaths in, among other countries, Sri Lanka.
In Act III, Zurga, who has the authority to stop the death sentence, confronts his conflicted feelings in an intense aria that provides Mr. Kwiecien one of his finest moments at the Met to date. Drenched by the storm, Zurga hides out in his office with reams of documents stacked up along an entire wall. He grabs a beer from a refrigerator and broods as he realizes that neither Nadir nor Leila truly love him. That’s what he craves from both.
Mr. Noseda conducts this often-criticized score as if every moment of the music matters deeply. The production, using a scholarly edition, hews to the original ending. After Zurga distracts the avenging villagers by setting their houses afire, he allows Leila and Nadir to flee. Alone, he awaits his fate — his people will soon realize what he has done. Bizet was not convinced that this ending was effective. If only he could have seen this production.
“The Pearl Fishers” continues through Feb. 4 at the Metropolitan Opera; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.