Songs of the Sea
Bizet’s melody-rich Les Pêcheurs de Perles returned to the Met repertory for the first time in 100 years during the 2015–16 season. Penny Woolcock’s sumptuous production—starring Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien as the principal love triangle—finds contemporary resonance in this romantic opera. By Margaret Reynolds
The famous tenor-and-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint,” from the first act of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), is one of the most popular selections in opera, familiar to everyone from serious opera lovers to novices who know the melody from films and television without necessarily being aware of the source. But the duet, though inarguably the best-known part of the opera, is just one of the score’s unforgettable vocal moments. In Penny Woolcock’s production of The Pearl Fishers, which premiered on New Year’s Eve 2015, the curtain rises on an underwater scene in which three divers float and glide in a dreamy video sequence. It is seductively beautiful—but it is also true to the emotional mood of this work, which, like “Au fond du temple saint,” is about memory and longing, fantasy and desire.
Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, with a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, was first performed in September 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. Like the composer’s more famous Carmen, which came 12 years later, the opera has an exotic setting, this time on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in some ancient time when the villagers live by the edge of the sea making a precarious living diving for pearls. They are ruled by Nourabad, the priest of Brahma, Hindu god of creation. The story is usually billed as a love triangle among the close friends Zurga and Nadir and a priestess, Leïla. But as Woolcock sees it, there is a fourth character, “and the fourth character is the sea. The sea is a primal force that sweeps in and affects all three main characters.”
Bizet’s music bears this out. Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore,” for instance, is in the form of a barcarolle, a folk song sung on the water by the gondoliers of Venice. The denouement of Act II, where a tryst between Leïla and Nadir is condemned as a desecration of the holy temple, is accompanied by a violent sea storm.
In Woolcock’s production the sea is always present, from the diving sequence at the beginning, to the waves that are projected onto the background (thanks to video projections by 59 Productions). Even the set, by Dick Bird, is a shanty town made of flotsam and jetsam, raggedy bits of sticks, plastic, and corrugated iron that suggest both the transience and mutability of these people’s lives and the power of the sea to transform and to destroy.
And this is not a scene from the past. Those who recall the terrible devastations of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami will recognize the implications that Woolcock draws from the setting of Bizet’s opera. “The Pearl Fishers feels very contemporary to me,” she says. “These villagers are threatened by floods every single year, which is why they take on this priestess, so that she can pray and appease the spirits of the sea to stop their village being swept away. And of course we know at the moment that in, say, the delta in Bangladesh, every six months people are having to move because their villages are completely drowned by rising sea levels.”
Woolcock has a background in documentary film, but she nevertheless feels a strong connection to the apparent romance of Bizet’s opera. “In some ways, The Pearl Fishers is a million miles away from the kind of work that I do in inner cities with gangs and deprived young people,” she explains. “But in other ways, The Pearl Fishers is very much about people right on the edge of survival, trying to live under very difficult material circumstances.”
In the first scene, an enormous poster advertising expensive jewelry dominates Bird’s set, ironically suggesting the contrast between the lives of the people who fish for the pearls and those who wear them. Similarly, aspiration and poverty clash as Nadir brandishes a Coca-Cola bottle, as well as via the costumes, by Kevin Pollard, which are traditional dhotis and turbans mixed with hand-me-downs from charity shops, fashionable designer football shirts worn to rags.
For all its luscious music, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers has a realist affect—relevant then and now—and a hard psychological edge. When Zurga and Nadir sing their famous “friendship” duet, they agree to overcome the rivalry created by their love for the same woman, but we soon learn that Nadir is still secretly intent on wooing her. Everyone deceives someone in this story; hidden allegiances and small betrayals drive the plot.
Leïla is a virgin priestess upon whose commitment and sacred prayers the whole community depends, and yet she meets Nadir in the temple. When Nourabad, the high priest, indignantly rips aside Leïla’s veil to reveal her identity, the assault includes sexual threat. When Zurga decrees that Leïla and Nadir must die for their sacrilege, his true motive is a personal jealousy.
It is Zurga’s tragedy that ends the opera. In another beautiful aria, “O Nadir, tendre ami,” Zurga remembers that Nadir is his friend. Although Leïla and Nadir are sentenced to the funeral pyre, made all too shockingly relevant by the introduction of gasoline, Zurga nonetheless determines to find a moment to free the condemned lovers. To do this he commits a terrible act of arson, setting fire to the village so that everyone rushes out to save their children. Zurga puts private conviction above his duty to the community that he has sworn to protect. This, of course, is a common theme in opera, but in Woolcock’s production, she makes clear how people can be destroyed by fanaticism, carelessness, and greed.
The first complete staging of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1916, with a starry cast that included Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempel. In the 1920s De Luca went on to make a famous recording of “Au fond du temple saint” with the tenor Beniamino Gigli (a version memorably used as the emblem of male bonding in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli). Since then, the duet has never been out of the recording repertoire.
But The Pearl Fishers is an opera that is much more than just that one part. There are exquisite arias, rousing choral numbers, inventive scoring for the orchestra, and as Woolcock’s production shows, a moral tale that addresses itself to our time.
Bizet was only 25 at the premiere of The Pearl Fishers, and it is easy to see why the themes in Cormon and Carré’s libretto might appeal to a young man. In the end, though, it is the music that makes this opera. Bizet’s melodies are accessible, but they are also profound and moving, as Woolcock explains: “When you’re working with it, it has all these tunes! And it drives you mad, because you hear sthem and they form these sort of earworms that go around and around in your head all day and all night. But that,” she concludes, “is the sign of great writing.”