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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) opera in three acts (1863) [112:29]
French libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré
Léïla – Diana Damrau
Nadir – Matthew Polenzani
Zurga – Mariusz Kwiecień
Nourabad – Nicolas Testé
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus / Gianandrea Noseda
Penny Woolcock (stage director), Dick Bird (set designer), Kevin Pollard (costume designer), Jan Schriever (lighting designer), 59 Productions (projection design), Andrew Dawson (movement director), Matthew Diamond (video director), Patricia Racette (backstage host)
Bonus material: “Back Stage at The Pearl Fishers”. Patricia Racette conducts live backstage interviews with: Diana Damrau, Gianandrea Noseda, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien. Studio interview with stage director Penny Woolcock.
Recorded live on 16th January 2016 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Filmed in High Definition – Picture format: 1080i0i, 16.9
Sound formats: a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit; b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
In French (original language), subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish
ERATO 9029 589360 Blu-ray [120:29 + bonus material 14:57]

After a hundred years, in 2016, the Metropolitan Opera, New York welcomed back Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). Last given at the Met in 1916, Bizet’s opera, a love triangle of desire and lust, was only performed there on four occasions, with three of them starring Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca. This Penny Woolcock production filmed live at the Met in January 2016 was streamed to cinemas internationally as part of “The Met: Live in HD” series. Actually, Woolcock’s staging originated at the English National Opera in 2010 and was later slightly modified.

The twenty-four year old Bizet was nowhere near an established name in Paris when the world premiere of The Pearl Fishers was given in 1863 at Théâtre Lyrique. Whilst it was not an instant critical success, early audiences were carried away with the enchanting tale of a love triangle, set in the exotic Far East, featuring pearl divers from a coastal village in Ceylon. Director Woolcock explains that in this love triangle between friends Nadir and Zurga, who both love Brahma priestess Léïla, there is the fourth character: the sea, an unstoppable force of nature, an integral part of her conception. Despite its famous highlight of the Pearl Fishers Duet, in truth the opera has a rather flimsy plot. With most of the finest arias concentrated in act one it is no surprise that it never became part of the core repertoire.

Right from the start as the curtain opens, Woolcock’s production, set in contemporary times, makes a stunning visual impact. The audience see a convincing impression of pearl divers swimming through vivid blue water down to the ocean floor, complete with shafts of shimmering light and air bubbles, all superbly coordinated. Concluding act two, impressive is the video projection of a terrifying tsunami about to envelop and devastate the village. Visually memorable are Dick Bird’s sets, most notably in act one with the stage dominated by metal scaffolding creating tiers of wooden platforms lashed together with ropes on top of oil drums. This is where the villagers assemble and go about their daily activities. A large poster board dominates the rear wall of the set. In the final scene the view of the corroded corrugated iron rooftops of the shanty town is convincing too. Especially notable is the conclusion of the opera, when Zurga is trapped on the burning dwelling roofs, about to be engulfed in flames. Some commentators have viewed Bird’s sets as muddled. They are certainly busy, yet I find them eminently believable. I rather enjoy the amount of small detail he creates, for example the untidy office of fisherman’s boss Zurga equipped with desk, rusty filing cabinet, an old computer and portable TV, where he can be seen smoking cigarettes and drinking Lion beer out of a small fridge. Designed by Kevin Pollard, the multi-coloured costumes are a credible hotchpotch of the traditional and contemporary like one might see today. The women are dressed in colourful saris and some have veils. The men wear mainly short-sleeve casual shirts and a curious array of harem pants or smocks with a few turbans visible. Part of the contemporary feel includes Nadir’s heavily tattooed arms, as lots of directors are currently using body art in line with popular culture.
German soprano Diana Damrau convinces in the part of virgin Priestess Léïla. She is singing with artistry combined with all her usual enthusiasm. Displayed to significant effect is her impressive range and rounded, fluid tone. Damrau is in glowing, expressive voice, displaying some attractive coloratura in her act one aria Dieu Brahma! as Léïla prays to the Hindu god Brahma to ward off evil spirits and protect the fishermen. In the role of lovelorn fisherman Nadir, American lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani sings charmingly if with little stage presence. Singing of his love for Léïla in his romance Je crois entendre encore from act one, he reveals his sweet, bright and unforced voice. It is a moving performance even if his rendition lacks the impact of the role’s finest exponents.

Zurga, the manager of the fishermen, is sung by Polish operatic baritone Mariusz Kwiecień who does not have the beefiest voice but has a glorious burnished tone and is a fine actor. In Zarga’s feature aria Comme autrefois dans la nuit, Kwiecień sings his heart out, compellingly capturing the anguish as he proclaims remorse for his cruelty. A near-constant presence around Léïla is the towering figure of forbidding high priest Nourabad, played by Damrau’s real-life husband Nicolas Testé. The tall French bass-baritone does not have an aria as such but the solid, dark timbre of his voice coalesces successfully with his authoritarian manner. Commendable singing from Polenzani and Kwiecień in the famous Pearl Fishers Duet from act one exhibis a satisfying balance of intensity and sensitivity. Under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays vibrantly, delivering a glorious wash of sound. In splendid form too, the Metropolitan chorus under renowned chorus master Donald Palumbo buoyed by its customary unity deliver a performance of impressive colour and weight.

The bonus material titled „Back Stage at The Pearl Fishers” consists of American operatic soprano Patricia Racette hosting live back-stage interviews with a hyper Diana Damrau, an exhausted maestro Gianandrea Noseda, the cheerful duo Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecień and an overawed pair of acrobats who perform the pearl diving. These are enjoyable interviews but tend to leave me wanting more in-depth dialogues than the time allows. Fascinating is the explanation of how the remarkably effective pearl diving scene was achieved by combining acrobats suspended by wires from a lift travel rig with computer mapping technology. Amazingly no wires can be seen. Fascinating is the studio interview with stage director Penny Woolcock providing helpful insights behind her vision of the production. Suitable appetite-whetting interviews with set designer Dick Bird and costume designer Kevin Pollard would have been welcomed. Instead of going straight into act two Patricia Racette is seen on screen introducing acts two and three which might have been appropriate in a cinema but felt intrusive here. Video director Matthew Diamond has excelled with fluent camerawork that contains all the important action and well chosen close-ups, all in vivid HD colour. At the start of each act and conclusion, views of the orchestra and conductor in the pit where the audience can be seen add to the live atmosphere. Satisfyingly recorded is the choice of stereo and surround sound. The booklet has an essay by William Berger focusing on Woolcock’s direction and there is a synopsis. Disappointing is the lack of a detailed track listing, although this is available on screen.

Beautifully performed, Penny Woolcock’s thoroughly enjoyable staging of Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) is a captivating and colourful spectacle.

Michael Cookson



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