Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bizet’s Little Known Nuit Enchanteresse

Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles
(New production)
Metropolitan Opera
January 30, 2016

A friendship at the core of the love triangle.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
For the first time in 100 years, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles makes its return to the stage of the Met in a new production by Penny Woolcock. The opening notes of the overture brought us underwater, as behind a massive translucent screen acrobats dived down and back up, with clever projections by 59 Productions creating ripples and bubbles as the divers swam through. Truly an enchanting start.  The curtain then opens on a shantytown, a fishing village of sorts on the outskirts of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, or at least that’s where an enormous billboard at the rear of the stage situates us. It features an advertisement for the local cash crop: pearls. Inspiration from the Deep of Eternal Beauty, it reads; followed by an address for the Sinhalese Jewelry and Gem Exchange, written in big contemporary capitalist letters on a billboard that dwarfs the rest of the stage for the duration of the first act. And in fact all of the local residents are apparently enslaved to this industry. The opening choral number is a joyous song about dancing in recognition of their indigenous divinity. But no one can afford to move. They’re all seated like indentured factory workers on the clock. No time to dance now!

The priestess arrives, the billboard dominates the scene.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The composer was only 25 when he wrote Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Its irresistibly gorgeous score, here shining under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, is rife with tranquil exoticism, all peace and quiet, an extended lullaby of breathtaking melodies. The first big musical hook is featured about halfway through Act I and its depth of expression catches you off guard. The male duet, Au fond du temple saint, makes this opera rather unique, placing male friendship at the heart of the story:

Jurons de rester amis!
Oh oui, jurons de rester amis!
Oui, c’est elle! C’est la déesse!
En ce jour qui vient nous unir,
Et fidèle à ma promesse,
Comme un frère je veux te chérir!
C’est elle, c’est la déesse
Qui vient en ce jour nous unir!
Oui, partageons le même sort,
Soyons unis jusqu’à la mort!

Here, the two friends recall how they both fell in love with the same priestess and were able to move past that and reinforce their own bond by swearing to remain friends and share the same fate until death do us part. It’s a love triangle buoyed by a heartfelt male bond that goes way back. And musically, it represents one of the soaring high points and recurring melodies of the opera, though it’s not the only one.

Till death do us part.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Everyone is always so crazy about this big bromance duet, but I can’t get enough of Nadir’s next big number, his nostalgia-laden aria, Je crois entendre encore. In context it also introduces several important clues into the character of Nadir while deepening some of the themes of the opera.

The lead up to his big aria begins with the arrival of the new priestess in town. The chorus welcomes and beseeches her: “Ah! come, let your chants drive away / the spirits of the water, / the fields and the woods.” Zurga, the newly appointed leader of the town, swears her in, forcing her to swear that she will abide by the following commands: “To keep away with your chants the dark spirits of night, to live friendless, without a husband or a lover?” To which Leila responds, “I promise!”

The priestess after taking her vows.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
In the Je crois entendre encore aria that follows on the heels of this ceremonial exchange, Nadir expresses all the opposite sentiments regarding the magic that happens only under the enchantment of night – the very same archetypal night that the townsfolk and pearl fishers fear so much.

I think I can still hear, (Je crois entendre encore)
hidden under the palm-trees,
her tender and sonorous voice
singing like a dove’s.
O bewitching night,
exquisite rapture ...

Rather than fret over and fear the “dark spirits of night” from which Zurga and the chorus begged the priestess to liberate them, Nadir stares directly into the abyss and finds rapture and bliss. He’s apparently a free-spirited young man who likes to walk on the edge. He’s not afraid of what the night has to offer.

Under the light of the stars
I can almost see her
slightly opening her long veils
to the tepid evening breeze.

Starlight is all he needs to suggestively pursue the satisfaction of his desire and to envision his long lost love. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as my dad always says, “Nothing good ever happens after dark,” because in the end his brand of intrepid exploration under cover of night inevitably leads to his (temporary) demise.

Nadir under the influence of night.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Nadir’s  hubristic transgression, his overstepping, his pursuit of the priestess after dark in the forbidden sacred grounds, seems to be the cause, at least in the popular imagination, of the tidal wave that wipes out most of the village. Nadir is the Dionysian force in the story. His illicit desire for the priestess sends the natural order of things out of equilibrium and the consequences are dire for everyone involved. It jeopardizes friendships, love interests, community politics, even his own life, since it leads directly to the climax on the pyre where he is set to be burned alive.

Matthew Polenzani not only completely owned his duet with Zurga, he took that big first aria, Je crois entendre encore, to a whole other level. He’s the one who has the guts to stare into the abyss of the night and its mysteries. And this depth of melancholic feeling came out in his performance. Polenzani proved himself to be incredibly versatile. He embodied Nadir’s long lyrical lines with delicate tact and gentle emotion. I always thought that this tenor’s voice was a little bit on the lightweight side, but here his lightness turned into delicate effortless nostalgic emotion and worked perfectly for the character. He was all vulnerability and tender passion.

The first half of the opera may be an extended lullaby melodically, but that’s not to say that it isn’t without its dramatic tensions. The image in the billboard back in Act I is proleptic of the action at the end of the Act III. The billboard is a picture of placid nature with the waters in perfect balance. It serves as a reminder of just how tenuous the beauty of nature can be. When its Apollonian order goes out of balance civilization is in trouble. Once the temple is corrupted by the unchaste desire of its priestess, Nature reacts. The tidal wave is unleashed and the shantytown ends up under water.

A chaste priestess with erotic feelings of her own.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Diana Damrau is the raison d’etre of this opera being produced at the Met. She’s such a big star that the Met just asked her what she would like to sing and she picked Pecheurs de Perles. This opera is a great display of the soprano’s lyric coloratura, here laced with eastern ornaments. Leila’s character is strong, passionate and fragile at the same time. Beautiful. She has her first big moment at the beginning of Act II with the aria O Dieu Brahma featuring long beautiful lyric lines. She is priestess but it seems that she also has feelings of her own to tend with. A bit like a Norma figure, to some extent.

Leila prepares for martyrdom.
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
Leila’s duet with Zurga at the beginning of Act III, Va, prends aussi ma vie, once the storm has subsided and everybody is picking themselves back up and drying off. Leila bursts into Zurga’s bureaucratic party office and she purposes a fierce martyrdom for her lover. As the tensions rise between the two of them, there is a big plot twist at the end of the sequence: we find out that he is the fugitive whom she saved when she was a child and so he mood swings yet again, this time from a mad fit of irrational rage out of jealousy to that of mercy, indebtedness and forgiveness.

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecen has fire and conveys a sensual brutal intensity that’s always a pleasure to hear (and see). His Zurga was an emotional roller coaster. One moment merciful, the next he’s condemning everyone to death. And vice versa. He’s willing to endanger himself and the whole community in order to liberate the lovers with whom he is suddenly again sympathetic. Kwiecen’s duet with Leila in Act II was particularly gripping though as he shined for his singing as much as for his dynamic and charismatic acting.

Zurga's fiery mood swings.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles was a real find. It is one of the truly beautiful and satisfying operas that would make a great gateway drug for newcomers to opera. Short and lovely, big yet simple to follow dramatic moments, highly pleasurable. I hope the Met will continue to bring it back in order to bait new opera fans as well as scour the archives for another number like this one to expand the repertory with other startling gems like this one. Bravi, bravi, in verità!

– Lui & Lei

Spectacular seaside effects by the visionary 59 Productions team.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The pearl fishers dive for the local cash crop.
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
Friendship is an insurmountable chasm.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Love will find a way to transgress the impossible.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The pyre awaits the lusty lovers.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
A post-apocalyptic execution scene.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

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