This last new production of the season at the Staatsoper Berlin was expected with particular anticipation: not only had Daniel Barenboim never conducted this piece, it was also the opera debut of internationally acclaimed film director Wim Wenders. What would he make of the relatively unknown opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles? Wim Wenders had heard the only two famous arias on a juxebox in a bar in San Francisco in the late 1970s. When Barenboim invited him to stage an opera, Wenders suggested The Pearl Fishers. The conductor was surprised, as he had never done this opera before, either. There and then he asked for a score, reading and humming the melodies as he turned the pages and agreeing to this selection. Both were visibly happy with the result after the première.

Olga Peretyatko (Leïla) © Donata Wenders
Olga Peretyatko (Leïla)
© Donata Wenders

The plot is a classic love triangle dealing with friendship, love, jealousy and forgiveness. In a fishing village, the inhabitants are waiting for the high priestess Leïla, who has been called upon to invoke the blessings of the gods for a bountiful pearl-fishing season. Zurga, the village chief, is very pleased to see his childhood friend, Nadir, return from a long absence. In one of the most famous duets in all opera, “Au fond du temple saint”, they remember their pilgrimage where they saw a mysterious, beautiful woman and both fell in love with her. They renew their vows of friendship. When Leïla finally arrives, led by the village elder Nourabad, the friends recognise in her the same lady. That night, Leïla is left alone on the beach, not before being reminded by Nourabad to keep her vows of chastity. Nadir arrives and they sing of their love. Nourabad bursts upon them and they are sentenced to death. But before the execution takes place, Zurga recognizes in Leïla his erstwhile rescuer, when he was on the run years ago. Now it is his turn to save the two persons he most loves, setting fire to the village as a distraction, thus helping Nadir and Leïla to escape.

Olga Peretyatko (Leïla) and Wolfgang Schöne (Nourabad) © Donata Wenders
Olga Peretyatko (Leïla) and Wolfgang Schöne (Nourabad)
© Donata Wenders

Wenders and his stage designer David Regehr decided on a bare setting. The slightly raked stage is completely empty. Billowing, grey silk curtains simulate waves, wind and protection at the same time. Widescreen video clips with black and white silent film aesthetics give the drama three-dimensionality and illustrate the flashbacks of the story – the pilgrimage of the two friends, the encounter with the unknown beauty, the rescue of the persecuted Zurga by Leïla. Again and again the rush of the ocean symbolise the gods that need to be appeased. Olaf Freese's lighting design is an integral part of the minimalist and intimate atmosphere. Sometimes bright spotlights nail the lovers, sometimes misty rays illuminate whispy clouds.

There is little insight into the souls of the main characters. The static gestures are more in keeping with the silent movie styles of the video clips. Surely this is also due to the superficial context of the libretto – the 25-year-old composer and his two librettists followed the latest trends back when the work was composed in 1863, to set operas in exotic lands. In this production, all such references have been avoided, right down to the somewhat coarse monochrome linen costumes of the designer Montserrat Casanova, which give absolutely no hint as to where the action might be taking place. Only Leïla's evening gown-like costume of has a touch of elegance.

Francesco Demuro (Nadir) and Gyula Orendt (Zurga) © Donata Wenders
Francesco Demuro (Nadir) and Gyula Orendt (Zurga)
© Donata Wenders

Olga Peretyatko used her costume as a prop, whirling it around as her clear and striking dramatic coloratura expressed her inner despair at the conflict between her vows of chastity and her love for Nadir. Baritone Gyula Orendt was the discovery of the evening. The young member of the Staatsoper ensemble immediately convinced with a strong stage presence and a warm, powerful baritone. The Nadir of tenor Francesco Demuro was unfortunately pressed and overtaxed. The excellent bass Wolfgang Schöne impressed in the role of Nourabad with sovereign depth and authority.

Gyula Orendt (Zurga) and Olga Peretyatko (Leïla) © Donata Wenders
Gyula Orendt (Zurga) and Olga Peretyatko (Leïla)
© Donata Wenders

The 86-member strong chorus, under the direction of Martin Wright, was also assigned a soloist role in this opera. Its moods quickly go from hope and admiration to indignation and anger, just as in today's populist inspired political landscape, with the difference that here the moods were musically mastered.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle relished each note in oftentimes very broad tempi. The arias were accompanied with great transparency, the dramatic outbursts of fury and natural forces displayed the full range of the young composer’s ambition.

****1