Why, you may ask yourself, have I not heard this opera before? Good question. George Bizet, the composer, is practically a household word, even though his only product you may be able bring to mind is “Carmen,” this season’s LA Opera opener. Does the fact that the Met let one hundred years lapse between productions of “Pearl Fishers” give you a clue? To be fair, when Bizet was presented with a completed libretto and asked to compose the score he was not pleased with it. Still a contract is a contract –a young composer cannot be choosy – and so we have “The Pearl Fishers,” in a 2016 joint production by the Met and English National Opera.
As originally written the opera was set in ancient Ceylon – now Sri Lanka. It tells the tale of a poor fishing village, presented here as a generic South Asian ocean side town with crude dwellings on stilts and water surging underneath. Zurga (Alfredo Daza) pretty much declares himself the leader by proclamation (tricky but doable under the right voting circumstances). The villagers sing of their fear of the sea as they are about to set off on their dive. In the meantime, Nadir (Javier Camarena), Zurga’s long lost buddy emerges on the scene. The boyhood friends had become alienated over the love of the same woman, Leila (Nino Machaidze), but upon seeing each other they burst into the one famous aria of this opera, “Au Fond du temple saint,” swearing to be BFFs and to abandon thoughts of the lovely virgin priestess, Leila. Easier said than done. Always tough when you are talking beautiful virgins.
Who should come as the priestess who will sing away the terrors of the sea? Of course, the lovely Leila (Nino Machaidze). Trouble looms. Like the sirens who tried to lure Ulysses, Machaidze’s coloratura wafts seductively out from the temple and Nadir cannot resist. As you might imagine, nothing good comes from this liaison except for a lovely duet which has not achieved the fame of the earlier duet by the two men. The sea overwhelms the town and the pearl fishers; the lovers are condemned to die; Zurga, furious at first, ultimately creates a conflagration in the town allowing the lovers to escape. Obviously there is more detail than this — enough to fill 2 hours and 15 minutes – but you get the idea.
Both the New York Times and the LA Times have greeted this production with acclaim. While the voices of stars and chorus are stellar; the orchestra under Placido Domingo’s direction was its usual glorious self; some of the sets are excellent; but neither the production, nor the opera itself, won me over.
Let us start with the opera itself. Unlike “Madam Butterfly” which, though clearly written with a western sensibility, manages to convey an eastern tone, there is little beyond the title and the set of “Pearl Fishers” to bestow a sense of place. For the most part Set Designer Dick Bird has done a magnificent job recreating the poor Asian fishing village with an unpredictable sea swelling beneath it.
And why, pray tell, am I modifying my statement with “for the most part?” First off there is the billboard above the town with the head and arm of a woman above water and faint lettering proclaiming “Inspiration from the deep.” A billboard? Why? Well it turns out Director Penny Woolcock has set the ancient tale sometime in the twentieth century. How is this so? Well, there are a few modern costumes for starters. In Act II, Zurga is in a generic government office, metal file cabinets, Steelcase desk, and papers piled to the ceiling. A small black and white TV is in the shelves and he helps himself to a beer from a small refrigerator. Some aficionados object to any adjustment of time in an opera production. I am not one of them, however, in this case it only detracts from an already unbelievable story.
To Woolcock’s credit, the use of projection is magnificent. For the overture, isolated pearl fishers are seen diving in the solitary depths. Between Act II and Act III there is footage on the scrim of the relentless destruction wrought by the devastating waves of the tsunami that did so much damage in Sri Lanka. It is all the more vivid in light of the recent havoc wreaked by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Unlike the bits of more modern artifacts, these are not events unique to the twentieth century and bring some context to the story.
So what is my bottom line? To be honest, this is not an opera I would suggest bringing a novice to view. For the devotee, the voices are magnificent, the chorus (which figures largely) is beautiful, the music, if not memorable, is certainly lyrical and engaging. Not bad for a 24-year-old composer presented with a libretto he did not like, but not an undiscovered treasure either. There is a reason the Met waited a hundred years to stage it again.