The second performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Bizet’s early opera Les Pecheurs de Perles saw the same mid-performance cancellation of one of the three principals as the première three days earlier. Mariusz Kwiecień, singing Zurga, withdrew after Act 1, having shown some roughness in his powerful baritone. His cover, Alexander Birch Elliott, sang Acts 2 and 3 after intermission, as he did in his Met debut earlier during the week. His youthful appearance and pleasant singing added a sense of excitement, but could not quite save a lackluster evening. Despite solid musicianship, it was a performance which lacked the drama and emotion that is palpable in the score.

Mariusz Kwiecień (Zurga) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień (Zurga)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Georges Bizet was barely 25 years old when the opera was staged in Paris in 1963. A love triangle set in Ceylon in a mystical past, the plot is formulaic and can be updated to any period including the present day, as is the case with the Met’s 2015 production by Penny Woolcock, first seen five years earlier at English National Opera. During the prelude, several aerial dancers, enacting pearl fishers, swim up and down the scrim, secured by discreet ropes from above. Arresting images of the ocean are projected during scene changes. Dick Bird's set design consists of a series of steps and planks that create a shanty town like a modern Sri Lankan coastal village, the temple where the heroine Leïla keeps a vigil, and the final temple ground. Zurga’s office in Act 3 is a set of shelves filled with papers projected on screen mid-stage, with a door in the middle for Leïla to enter to plead for her lover Nadir, Zurga’s friend and love rival.  

The village and temple scenes are cluttered with the chorus milling on precarious platforms, obscuring the entrance of Zurga and Nadir. Leïla is brought to the village in a boat with the high priest Nourabad, as the narrow open space between the two sets of planks represents an inlet. The overall effect succeeds in creating a claustrophobic community steeped in tradition, where the forbidden love of a priestess becomes a destructive force not only of the friendship but of the community itself when Zurga sets the viallge alight to give the lovers chance to escape. In this production, Zurga is left alone on stage at the end as, in the original version of the opera, and not killed by the mob, as in the 1886 revision made after Bizet's death.

Javier Camarena (Nadir), Pretty Yende (Leïla) and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Javier Camarena (Nadir), Pretty Yende (Leïla) and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The abundant musical highlights include the famous tenor–baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint”, Nadir's aria “Je crois entendre encore”, Leïla's entrance aria, and tenor-soprano duet.  Bizet admired Wagner, and leitmotifs appear often. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the opera is the last off-stage duet of Leïla and Nadir as they celebrate their freedom, set to the music of tenor-baritone duet. The score is rich with lyrical passages, lush melodies tinged with exoticism by clever use of woodwinds. The three principal singers all had the requisite voice and technique, but they seemed to lack the sense of melodic line in their singing.  Javier Camarena possesses one of the most beautiful tenor voices today. He sang with exquisite control, his voice tender and yet steely. Perhaps due to Kwiecien’s illness, the famous duet in Act 1 failed to capture all the shifting emotion in the score; spiritual awe, love for a beautiful woman, and renewed pledge of friendship; it sounded perfunctory and routine, not transcendental and heavenly. Camarena's aria was also subdued; one yearned for more legato phrasing.

Pretty Yende (Leïla) and Javier Camarena (Nadir) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Pretty Yende (Leïla) and Javier Camarena (Nadir)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Soprano Pretty Yende had a captivating stage presence as Leïla, with open smiles and beguiling gestures. Her voice is indeed pretty and projects with clarity and warmth. She did not seem to connect with the inner turmoil of the character, however, and her portrayal was generic. She was at her best in her love duet with Nadir and her later confrontation with Zurga. Alexander Elliott brought much needed lyricism to the evening. His voice is light in timbre and it has a tinge of sweetness that may not be suitable for the forceful character of the village leader bent on revenge for betrayal. However, he sang with excellent technique and emotion, and moved and acted well on stage; a refreshing performance.

The veteran of the production, Nicolas Testé, was in good voice and was a solid presence as Nourabad. The Met Chorus began with some unevenness, but they were back on form in the terrifying mob scene at the end. The Met Orchestra played with their usual professionalism under Emmanuel Villaume, whose tempi were brisk and sometimes gave little room for the singers to luxuriate in Bizet’s melodies.

***11