It has taken the Met Opera 100 years to get Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles back on the stage, but the new production the company unveiled in a gala New Year's Eve premiere is such a spectacular success, beautifully sung and acted by a splendid cast and chorus, it should secure the opera a place in the repertory for years to come.
With Diana Damrau as Leila, the priestess who is the object of two friends' obsession; Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, the pearl diver who loves her; and Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, the village headman who is the third side of the love triangle, this Pearl Fishers is a real gem, as fiery and fervid as any of the more familiar tales of forbidden love, jealousy, and vengeance.
It is a marvelous staging that audiences around the world will be able to share on Jan. 16 when the Met simulcasts its matinee performance to more than 2,000 theaters in 70 countries as part of its Live in HD series.
Bizet wrote Les Pecheurs at the age of 25, fresh out of the Paris Conservatory, and while early audiences responded well to it, the critics did not, and it was largely forgotten until decades after the composer's untimely death at 36, his reputation firmly assured with Carmen.
Even after the lilting lyricism, dramatic duets, and rousing choruses of Pecheurs began to be appreciated anew, the opera suffered from decades of Bowdlerized scores that included a variety of endings. It was only in the 1990's that Bizet's original was discovered, and if the libretto still seems simplistic and far-fetched, it is no more so than some others.
In a program note, Peter Gelb, the Met general manager, observes that the last time Pecheurs was at the Met Babe Ruth was pitching for the Boston Red Sox and Frieda Hempel, Enrico Caruso, and Giuseppe De Luca were the reigning operatic stars who sang the three leads at the old Golden Horseshoe.
The new Met staging, a co-production with the English National Opera, is by the Argentine director Penny Woolcock. Bizet originally set the opera on Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, but Woolcock has placed it in some undefined "village in the Far East" in recent times.
The delights begin during the Prelude as pearl divers descend from the flies, as though swimming through ocean depths, then ascend again. The curtain rises on a seaside shantytown crammed with huts of corrugated tin built on stilts and boardwalks on floating oil drums, fabulously imagined by the set designer Dick Bird in his first Met outing. A huge billboard advertising jewelry looks out over the village bearing the legend: "Inspiration From the Deep ... Eternal Beauty."
The villagers sing of the dangers they face diving for pearls and elect Zurga to be their leader, and he informs them that a Hindu priestess has been recruited to come and pray for their safety. The priestess must be a virgin, he says, remain veiled, and take a vow of celibacy. In return, she'll get the best pearl the divers come up with as a reward.
Zurga also spots his old and dear friend Nadir in the crowd. Years earlier both had fallen in love with a priestess named Leila, but each swore not to pursue her in order to protect their friendship. Zurga kept his promise; Nadir didn't (though he first insists he did). It will come as no surprise that the priestess who arrives to pray for the divers is Leila.
Things then get a little messy. Zurga doesn't recognize her right away. But Nadir does, and he pursues his amorous suit. Sexual passion, betrayal, death sentences all follow in quick order. The village is hit first by a tsunami of a storm (wonderfully created by projections) and then a raging fire. A pearl necklace plays a crucial role.
But the real joys of Les Pecheurs are in the gorgeous arias, duets, and orchestral passages, which the Met Orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda's expert baton, renders superbly. Bizet makes grand use of choruses, opening and closing the opening act and final scene of the third, and the Met Chorus, one of the best in the world, is brilliant here, deservedly earning a special curtain call.
Damrau is in exquisite voice and whether singing from beneath a veil or flat on her back, she masters the delicate phrasing and vibrato of her thrilling second-act aria "Comme autrefois." And her love duets with Polenzani are full of ardent emotion, as is her third-act encounter with Kwiecien, pleading for her lover's life.
There is real chemistry between Damrau and Polenzani, who has become one of the Met's most reliable tenors. There is a vibrant yet dreamlike quality to his singing, especially evident in his opening aria "Je crois entendre encore," and in the love scenes.
Kwiecien is excellent as Zurga, and his opening act duet with Polenzani, "Au fond du temple saint," one the most moving tenor-baritone duets ever written, is a highlight of the evening. Polenzani and Kwiecien will be together again later in the season when both appear in the Met premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux.
The French bass Nicolas Teste rounds out the cast as Nourabad, the high priest who brings Leila to the village. The Met will give Les Pecheurs de Perles nine more performances this season, and one can hope it will return more often in seasons to come.