Composed when Bizet was only 24, Les pêcheurs de perles tells the story of how two men's vow of eternal friendship is derailed by their love for the same woman, the priestess Leïla. Caught in her own dilemma, Leïla is herself torn between her sacred vow of chastity and her love of one of the two men. Under Maestro Carlo Rizzi, the Philharmonia Zürich did as stunning a job of portraying Bizet's plaintive tonality – one superb flute solo comes to mind – as it did underscoring the powerful dynamics of this human tragedy. Under the fine direction of Jürg Hämmerli, the chorus was also stellar.

<i>Les pêcheurs de perles</i> © Suzanne Schwiertz
Les pêcheurs de perles
© Suzanne Schwiertz

Jens-Daniel Herzog's staging and Mathis Neidhardt's set radically changed the opera’s original setting. Rather than the ancient Ceylon that Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré scripted for the opera’s 1863 Paris première, this production took the audience aboard an ageing tanker. Crosscut so as to be visible on three different levels, the ship showed a processing plant, office and uppermost deck. Not surprisingly, the some 60-odd pearl fishers themselves were relegated to the lowermost. Over piles of oysters and searching for pearls at the start, the cast’s surgical aprons and pink rubber gloves were ominously foreboding. When Nadir (the strong tenor Frédéric Antoun) first encounters them, for example, they seem policed and frightened and refuse interaction with him. 

Act I includes the great aria of sacred friendship between the two male principals, Nadir and his counterpart Zurga, the grounded Étienne Dupuis, who is head honcho on board ship. Both men had once renounced Leïla (Rosa Feola) in the name of maintaining the “sacred friendship that unites (their) souls”. Years later, Nadir breaks his vow and sees his lover secretly. In the nostalgic, “Je crois entendre encore”, we learn the extent of his ardent desire for Leïla; he pays tribute to the “mad intoxication” and “divine rapture” of her memory.

When Leïla actually appears, her entrance is spectacular. Under the keen eye of Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma (the brilliant Wenwei Zhang), she in lowered from the ceiling to the nervous huddle of pearl fishers like a votive figure, her stately robes (Sybille Gädeke, costumes) covered by a transparent, sparkling veil. The fabric trembled and stuck to her lips with a startling effect as she breathed in and out.

<i>Les pêcheurs de perles</i> © Suzanne Schwiertz
Les pêcheurs de perles
© Suzanne Schwiertz

In Act II, a very laid-back Leïla is tended by her warden, Nourabad, and shows herself a true vocal force. Smoking casually, she gulps down the PET-bottled mineral water he has supplied. Yet her ‘secular’ pair of jogging trousers and a low-cut H&M-tee made her less of a ‘sweet dream’ than a sloppy castaway. Nadir’s lament that his love is being held captive in a “gold-blue palace” is somewhat debatable, too. For when Leïla stands akimbo, crooks her elbows and spits out discontent, she seems more a feisty little tomboy in the schoolyard than an elevated figure. Indeed, many of these attributes simply distract from the subtleties of Bizet’s fine music. Each of the singers sang compellingly − particularly Dupuis in the role of Zurga, whose attacks were clear as a bell − but all too often, the number of easy and trendy theatrical distractions had me fighting to get back to the vocals and orchestration.

When the lovers’ union is revealed, the furious Zurga shows them no mercy and condemns them to death in his mad rage. Oddly, the stage lighting crew (Jürgen Hoffmann's designs) also went mad at this point – setting off a red strobe that lasted for a good four minutes. It felt like a juvenile joke whose punchline was being repeated four times over. In the final act, Zurga retracts the death sentence when he learns that Leïla was the very maiden who once saved his life. Remorseful and compassionate, he lets the couple walk, and takes the blame himself for their heresy. At that, the two lovers step out through the fog-filled, brilliantly backlit stern door of the ship as if in a Star-Trek film, and the pearl fishers take up their oyster knives against their sorry leader. In sum, feverish madness is one thing, and romance may even defer to deep friendship, but in this self-conscious production, a whole host of gimmicks overruled the score. Bizet hardly needed such decoration.

***11