love vs. faith
by Douglas Messerli
Eugène Cormon and Michael Carré (libretto), Georges Bizet (composer), Penny Woolcock (stage director), Matthew Diamond (director) Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) / 2016 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]
Changing the location from the more specific island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers)—the first time on their stage for over 100 years—is set in a vague “Far East,” its ramshackle sea-side village filled with figures dressed in a wide-range of outfits that cover everything from the mid-19th century to the contemporary, and who inhabit rooms fit out with run-down refrigerators and television sets. These brawny pearl fishers reach for out a “brewski” while still worshipping the ancient brahma, and still glorifying their religion with the nightly songs of a vestal virgin, Leïla (Diana Damrau) who might have been at home in ancient times. By permitting these obvious anachronisms, director Penny Woolcock allows for the exoticism of Bizet’s world while bringing that fairytale landscape into the real world.
That tactic pays off by transferring our attention from the obvious flaws of Eugène Cormon’s and Michael Carré’s original libretto and later disastrous musical revisions by the opera’s publisher Choudens, back to Bizet’s sparklingly limpid score. Under the careful and yet exploratory hand of conductor Gianandrea Noseda, we can now again hear the constant references to the surrounding ocean (made even more theatrically central by beginning the opera with plunge of two pearl fishers into the deep sea—using skilled company dancers with newfound aerial skills to pretend the undulations of swimming) and discover that there are more than two great arias to this almost forgotten opera.
Yes, the well-known tenor-baritone duet, “Amitié sainte,” a swearing of the two male lead’s eternal friendship that reads to anyone with an ounce of imagination as a male-male matrimony, is the most unforgettable aria of this opera and many another; but almost as memorable is Nadir’s (Matthew Polenzani) solo recounting of the beauty of Leïla, “Je crois entendre encore.” And the choral pieces of both acts I and II beautifully bind the personal emotions of the village leader Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), Nadir and Leïla, with the fears, strengths, and desires of the community as a whole.
In part, this tale, like so many operas, represents a struggle to express the self within the confines of communal rules and decorum. Nadir’s and Leïla’s love does not only betray the love of Nadir and Zurga, but the pledge Leïla has made to the community and their god.
The fact that both men are also in love with this woman merely complicates the various positions, public and private, which have been imposed upon them in this slightly desperate world, threatened by the possibility of daily death by drowning, being crushed by the waters tsunamis, and, at opera’s end, destroyed by fire. In short, the central question of the opera becomes how can these individuals sublimate their private passions to their public declarations and their faith?
The character of Zurga, in particular, is torn between these issues. It is he, despite the outcry of the community, who must decide whether the discovered sinners must live or die, and he openly wavers again and again, twice by the end of Act I.
Even after he has sentenced them to death, Act II finds him suffering for his decision; and, upon meeting with Leïla, who argues for him to spare Nadir, even if he kills her, he once again temporarily rescinds his decision, desperately wanting to believe that the whole affair was a thing of accident instead of a preconceived betrayal of Nadir’s and his love.
But as Leïla goes on to restate their love, Zurga’s feelings of reconciliation quickly turn to jealousy and vengeance again in the magnificently tumultuous ending of “Je frémis, je chancelle, de son âme cruelle,” in response to which the previously submissive Leïla curses Zurga and proudly embraces her death beside her lover.
Once again, it appears, community values will outweigh personal passions; but having now realized that he has, symbolically speaking, had his own night with Leïla when, as a child, she offered him haven in her family home, Zurga shifts position one more time, in this case ardently turning against his community and religion by setting the fragile wooden homes afire, and sending the city’s inhabitants back to their burning homes in order to save their endangered children. While the lovers escape, his fate seems sealed, as he, himself, in this production, appears to be surrounded by flames. And no matter what outcome we might imagine for events, his passion for both Nadir and Leïla has set his own life afire at the expense of communal obligations and faith.
So excellent is this new production of the early Bizet opera, we can be assured that at least for several years, The Pearl Fishers will again be available, at least in New York.
Los Angeles, January 17, 2016
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2016)
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