When Georges Bizet’s three-act opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) premiered in Paris in 1863, most of the reviews were biting and dismissive. A critic in Le Figaro deigned to say that “there were no fisherman in the text and no pearls in the music”. Even Bizet himself, then only 24 years old, called his opera an “honourable, brilliant failure”. Yet The Pearl Fishers has gone on to become one of the most popular of all French operas, in no small part because it marries a straightforward narrative with spicy harmonies and upbeat rhythms.

Les pêcheurs de perles © Susanne Schwiertz
Les pêcheurs de perles
© Susanne Schwiertz

Eugène Cormon and Michael Florentin Carré’s libretto tells the story of a fateful triangle in which two men's vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman, Leila. She, in turn, faces her own dilemma: the conflict between secular love and the sacred oath she has taken as a Brahmin priestess. The scales drop on the side of passionate love in the end, but not without terrific emotional turmoil. And predictably, there is no real happy ending: one of the two men must clear the path for the other, and – marking the opera’s emotional climax – he chooses death over loss of face and official standing.  

In the revival of Jens-Daniel Herzog’s production, any godly power Leila might use to protect the pearl fishers from the dangers of the depths is pulled into the background. Granted, in her first appearance as the priestess – a dazzling vision in a hot pink sari and glistening gold veil – she is lowered slowly from great heights onto the stage. At about the same time, two athletic fellows in the cast are stripped to their skivvies and bustled off, stage right, to dive in search of pearls. But we have little insight into her work as a priestess or to whom she actually ministered before she came to the ocean-going vessel we meet her on. 

Mathis Neidhardt’s brilliant stage design has the audience facing the cross-section of that ship head on. At mid-level, an office/cabin is located just below an open deck. But it’s in the lowest level, the belly of the ship, where some three dozen men and women in crisp, white aprons stand to gut the day’s catch. Having stomped methodically on the down beats of the opening score, the workers drop the gutted fish into neatly-stackable crates. That order on the factory floor had been reflected earlier in the famous friendship duet, "Au fond du temple saint", between Zurga and Nadir, the two male leads. Later, the simple monotony of the workers’ task in a restricted space, conversely, serves to make the drama transpiring above them take on a darker hue. In short, the tension between confinement and liberation is beautifully integrated into the stage design itself. 

Les pêcheurs de perles © Susanne Schwiertz
Les pêcheurs de perles
© Susanne Schwiertz

American baritone Brian Mulligan sang a strong Zurga. Mulligan’s is a deep barrel of a voice, and with it he sustained a major presence on stage as the "head fisherman", despite the frequent pinching of his nostrils that suggested the first symptoms of a cold. He played as terrifying a victim of betrayal as he was compassionate in the wake of another’s true love. Realizing he couldn’t bring the priestess/Leila to reason in light of her passion for Nadir, “the friend of his youth”, Zurga condemns both of them to death, asking that she forgive him “the passion of an angry heart”. Only after her gesture of tenderness does he acknowledge that what the couple shared was nobler than his own reputation.

Costumed handsomely by Sybille Gädeke as something like a rugged Indiana Jones, Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky made a particularly dashing Nadir. He showed some unevenness in the high notes of his first plaintive aria, but went on to master the role. Indeed, when “on the bosom of the fragrant night” he and Leila become lovers, theirs was a perfectly rendered duet, both vocally and theatrically. 

Les pêcheurs de perles © Susanne Schwiertz
Les pêcheurs de perles
© Susanne Schwiertz

The superb Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska sang the sole female lead, Leila. She, too, had a somewhat rocky start, most likely attributable to that first, hair-raising entrance, descending from a ungodly height on a meter-round platform. Having abandoned the Brahmin priestess, her lay character was carefree but compassionate, modest, but secure in her convictions, and Kulchynska gave the character a degree of youthful authority. Her voice was clear and resonant, and she had no trouble rising above the volumes of the gifted opera chorus.

Finally, Chinese bass-baritone Wenwei Zhang, a highly accomplished member of the Zurich Opera ensemble since the 2014/15 season, gave a stellar performance as the High Priest, Nourabad. It is he who brings a priestess to the village, and who stands almost Republican in his unwavering insistence on punishing her for her sins. Unequivocally, he made us quiver in terror. 

****1