Siren of the Seas

November 10th, 2015

Diana Damrau stars as the beautiful heroine of Bizet’s sumptuous Les Pêcheurs de Perles—returning to the Met for the first time in 100 years, in an inventive new production by Penny Woolcock.


When the Metropolitan Opera opened its 1916–17 season with a new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs 
de Perles—with Enrico Caruso leading 
the cast—the press was breathless in its reporting. “Gala throng hails opening
 of opera,” trumpeted the New York Times. “A house crowded to its utmost capacity… exhibiting wealth, brilliance, fashion.” The critics were effusive even beyond the usual perfumed style of the day: “Pearls
 of song were never cast before a more brilliant assemblage than last night,” asserted The Evening Sun. Musical America’s enthusiastic if less-than-succinct headline read: “Singers Make Much of Rich Opportunities Accorded Them by the Score and Splendid Audience Applauds Them Rapturously”. Everyone loved Caruso as Nadir. After lengthy digressions about his appearance (apparently as important to critics back then as it
is thought to be today), they agreed he “sang gloriously,” with a “lyric beauty recalling his earlier days [when he] set
 the house wild with joy” (The Sun). There was more. As the priestess Leïla, soprano Frieda Hempel was praised for “singing of the highest beauty,” as was the “handsome and hirsute” baritone Giuseppe De Luca in the role of Zurga. All agreed that the score was irresistibly gorgeous. Tellingly, the Evening Sun said that the famous tenor–baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” was “surpassed” by the Act I chorus to Brahman. A rival paper, likewise, noted that the chorus received applause, “just like a star.” Clearly, there was more to this opera than one famous duet.

So why, then, after just two more performances that season, did The Pearl Fishers disappear from the Met stage
for nearly 100 years? With her new production, opening on New Year’s Eve, director Penny Woolcock aims to rectify this surprising programmatic lapse.

“It’s a very hot story,” Woolcock says. “The Pearl Fishers is essentially a love story. You have a beautiful priestess, who’s sworn to have nothing to do with men, and two men who are both madly in love with her, but they’re friends, so they’ve sworn to each other that they’ll renounce their love for her in order to maintain their friendship. It’s a classic setting for longing, desire, love, betrayal, the destruction of friendship—all the ingredients are there for a really great story. And the music is incredibly beautiful.”

Indeed, The Pearl Fishers features some of Bizet’s most glorious music, and the score is rife with opportunity for dazzling vocal display. In the Met’s new production, soprano Diana Damrau stars as the Hindu priestess Leïla, pursued by friends-turned-rivals Nadir, sung by tenor Matthew Polenzani, and Zurga, portrayed by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. This all-star trio will be led by Gianandrea Noseda on the podium.

The Pearl Fishers’ unusual history at the Met is best considered a tempting foretaste of the opera’s delights rather than an excuse to dismiss them. Director Woolcock feels the beauty of the score, which virtually everyone acknowledges, points 
to powerful ideas in the work. “There’s obviously the famous duet between two men,” she says, but she sees more in it
 than a tune. “It’s about friendship, and 
we all know that in romantic love when you get betrayed, it’s heartbreaking, but the same is true with friendship as well. When friendships fall apart, it’s absolutely devastating.” Beyond the duet, she singles out memorable arias for each of the three leads, and—as with the critics at the 1916 Met premiere—the chorus, which portrays a vibrant but endangered community of people living by the sea.

It’s worth noting that in the early part of the 20th century, new operas were frequently produced at the Met and then set aside. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt vanished after 12 performances between 1921 and 1923. And as inconceivable as it is now, Puccini’s Turandot was brushed aside soon after
 its frenzied 1926 Met premiere for more than 30 years. During the tenure of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Met’s general manager from 1908 to 1935, the repertory formula seemed to be a two-tiered combination of “novelties” that were quickly discarded and war-horses whose spots on the roster were assured at that time (Aida, La Bohème, Wagner’s operas). A run of a few performances before falling out of the repertory was not unusual and did not constitute a “failure” for an opera. The Pearl Fishers, furthermore, must have suffered from a sort of “little sibling” complex with Bizet’s final creation, Carmen, against which no opera can survive direct comparison. (Indeed, the philosopher Nietzsche had even recommended Carmen as an antidote to the “disease” of Wagnerism.)

Woolcock’s new production preserves The Pearl Fishers’ original locale of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and its ambience of ancient Hinduism but in a contemporary setting, with clear references to South Asian communities. The costumes are a mix of traditional saris and dhotis with contemporary clothes, and the set represents a shantytown at the very edge of the sea from which the local villagers make their precarious living. This sea is also a constant threat to them—especially with today’s issues of global warming and rising sea levels. It is as much a source of dread and wonder as it would have been to the ancients. The video designers from 59 Productions, the whizzes behind the Met’s stagings of Satyagraha and The Enchanted Island, have created an extraordinary water world for the production.

Indeed, the sea takes on a central role in Woolcock’s conception; she calls it the opera’s fourth leading figure. “It is a very primal force, which sweeps in and affects all of our three main characters. We know at the moment that in Bangladesh, every six months people have to move because their villages are completely drowned
 by rising sea levels,” Woolcock says. “So it does feel, in that sense, that there’s a very contemporary feeling about it.” The mix of old and new finds what might
have eluded the critics of 1916, who were concerned with the opera’s set-number structure: a deeply human drama of 
love, friendship, community, and nature, expressed through music whose beauty rises above the cycles of fashion. —William Berger