Les Pêcheurs de Perles is a graceful if senseless piece, composed when Georges Bizet was only 25 years old and miles away from the psycho-musical drama of Carmen. Whereas Carmen’s plot flows in some natural order and builds to a dramatic finale, with three dimensional characters who actually say things to one another with music that expresses more than they say, The Pearl Fishers’ wafer thin plot is based on coincidences and is tritely told. Luckily, it has two or three entrancing tunes, and its exotic setting – Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) – while certainly not as alluring or daring as its Orientalism was to 19th century audiences, offer designers and stage directors great opportunities.

Act I <i>Les pêcheurs de perles</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Act I Les pêcheurs de perles
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

It has been 100 years since the Metropolitan Opera last presented it, with Frieda Hempel, Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe de Luca, and it still managed to only run up three performances. But rather than dote on its shortcomings, let me praise the Met’s ideal cast and wonderful production, the latter a co-production with English National Opera, first seen there in 2010. Moved from “ancient times” to relative modernity (the television and refrigerator in the last act reek of the 1960s, or maybe that part of the “far east” is just behind the rest of the world), Penny Woolcock’s production on Dick Bird’s sets begins in the water, thanks to projections by 59 Productions, with three pearl divers swimming up and down the entire height of the stage. Soon after the prelude, during which I was wishing the same production company were around for Das Rheingold, the set is revealed: a sort-of shanty town on the water with fishermen and women in native dress (saris, pantaloons) and a nice suit for a character or two, and vaguely “native” customs (hands together and placed at the forehead in greeting). Later on a veritable tsunami was projected as a scene change and the final scene offered the village in flames, having been set on fire by one of the main characters in order to save the other two.

Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Matthew Polenzani (Nadir)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The arsonist is Zurga, the town’s leader (in the dark suit, and after the tsunami in a removable T-shirt, who gingerly takes a beer out of the ‘fridge and expresses his exhaustion and conflicting feelings while lighting a cigarette), wonderfully sung by Mariusz Kwiecień, who is saving his old friend Nadir and the priestess Leïla, who are running away together despite Nadir’s promise of eternal friendship and honesty to Zurga since they both, at one time long ago, were both in love with her. The fire is, of course, to divert the townspeople, who want to kill both the priestess, whose betrayal of chastity and anonymity means that bad things will happen in the water (hence the tsunami) and Nadir, who has been caught befouling her. Throughout the evening Mr Kwiecień proved himself as skilled in French opera as he is as Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin. Tenor Matthew Polenzani, who gets better each season, outshone expectations as Nadir, partnering Mr Kwiecien in the rightly famous, handsome duet, “Au fond du temple saint” with both power and elegance, and delivering his difficult aria, “Je crois entendre encore” with meltingly beautiful legato, attention to the text that would make a Lieder singer proud, and ravishing mezza voce, including a pianissimo high C near the aria’s close.

Mariusz Kwiecień (Zurga) and Diana Damrau (Leïla) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień (Zurga) and Diana Damrau (Leïla)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Perhaps the most difficult role to bring off convincingly amidst the general nonsense is that of Leïla, the not-so-chaste Hindu priestess at the center of the love triangle. Her music is the least appealing of the three leads – even her big aria, “Comme autrefois,” does not have a tune one can recall for long – and quite high-lying and challenging. Diana Damrau, a fine singer who can bully a role when she wants to, is at her best here, rounding out Leïla’s “far-eastern” embellishments with lovely tone, exquisite high notes and perfect trills at every dynamic range and textual expressivity that made one actually care about her. Having to deal with being veiled half the evening barely got in her way, although when she and Mr Polenzani sang their second act love duet and he began to dis-veil her, one began counting to seven. In the small but sonorous role of Nourabad, the high priest, Nicolas Testé was indeed sonorous.

The chorus, with plenty to do – some of it off-stage and quite nonsensical – was at its finest, as was the Met orchestra. Gianandrea Noseda happily dispatched the silliest of the choruses with fleet tempi while otherwise bathing in the beauty of the few good tunes, most of which re-appear at different times throughout the opera, à la Adriana Lecouvreur. I suspect the Met will bring Pecheurs back every so often now if it can gather the right cast – the house was packed and the audience responded to the star turns with great enthusiasm. Not every opera has to be a masterpiece.

*****