I love attending the Met Opera (captured live on screen at the NOVA); it enables us all to enjoy superlative opera. The Pearl Fishers is set in the far east where villagers dive for pearls – a dangerous occupation that requires a virgin priestess to ward off the spirits of the storm and keep them safe. Two friends, Nadir (Matthew Polenzani) and Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien) have sworn off a beautiful woman they both desired, for the sake of their friendship, but when she reappears as the virgin priestess we discover that Nadir and Leila (Diana Damrau) are still in love and risk all. The ensuing storm becomes a tsunami. Discovered, they are to be put to death by Zurga, but ultimately he relents and allows them to escape by setting fire to the village. He saves her as she once saved him when he was a fugitive needing sanctuary. A child, she risked her life for him. He had given her a pearl in memory, and just before they are to be hanged, he recognises the pearl. The lovers go, and Zurga is left to face the consequences.
The tenor (Nadir) and baritone (Zurga) sing the haunting duet that is one of the most recognised operatic duets – a highlight of the two hour opera.
British producer director Penny Woolcock and set designer Dick Bird have created a contemporary masterpiece of an opera that was last performed at the Met 100 years ago, starring Caruso.
With technological wizardry, the opera opens with some pearl fishers diving down to the bottom of the azure ocean, across the entire stage, complete with bubbles. We later learn that the divers have mastered flying rigs to become divers, and are treated to an explanation of the technology during interval.
While the lovers Polenzani and soprano Damrau sing brilliantly throughout, Kwieccien as Zurga doesn’t impress until the second and third acts, when he delivers a masterful performance.High priest Nourabad didn’t quite bring the gravitas to his role, but this is a minor point. Overall, the singing by all was exquisite, and deserving of the standing ovation from the Met audience.
Contemporary touches that work a treat include Zurga distributing money to the villagers to bribe their voting him as the diving leader, and each villager displays a Zurga face mask to signify a unanimous election. High rise slums in the background are an intriguing touch to this fishing village, and the slums bleed water as they morph into Zurga’s office, resplendent with laptop amongst the piles of files and dusty office furniture of an indeterminate twentieth century. While some audience members muttered that the scene changes were too long, I was happy to watch the lively ocean or slum screen.
I took my mother to a 1980’s performance in Melbourne that had a less visually exciting, and more traditional, historically accurate set.
I found today’s imaginative and clever set deeply symbolic and far more visually stimulating. The confrontational scene between Zurga and Leila was powerful and mesmerizing. The meta action of Zurga using a red jerry can to sprinkle petrol over the rope bound lovers was a masterstroke. A subtle reminder of suttee, and the violence of superstitious people seeking retribution. The minor characters remained in role every moment, using facial expressions and body language that heightened tension. This performance will stay with me, and I applaud the quirky use of modern tools amidst the decaying buildings of yesterday that were constructed above the nineteenth century fishing village. It was zany and high tech with a core of colonial past, and faithful vocal renditions that honoured Bizet’s love triangle while taking the audience to a magical visual feast.