Pearlfishers - Too Many Fish, Not Enough Pearls

Pearlfishers, photo by Ken Howard

The last time the Metropolitan Opera performed Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles it was in 1916 and it had a cast of nonentities like Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel and Giuseppe de Luca. Audiences apparently loved the Oriental love triangle fantasy -- one review said that the famous duet "Au fond du temple saint" "brought down the house"and the often ornery W.H. Henderson reported that the equally renowned aria "Je crois entendre encore" "set the house wild with joy."

Nevertheless the opera only received two more performances at the Met until it revived was nearly 100 years later on December 31, 2015. The new production (director Penny Woolcock) was borrowed from the English National Opera and starred three of General Manager Peter Gelb's favorites: soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kweicien. Reviews for the production and singers have generally been very positive. I went to see the January 8 performance and the house was packed.

I hate to be that person that hates something everyone else loves, but I thought that while Woolcock's production (updated to a modern South Asian fishing village, but with storyline unchanged) was generally very pretty and gave the opera its necessary dose of Oriental charm, there was one missing ingredient in this revival of Bizet's lovely opera: great voices that would "set the house wild with joy."

Polenzani (Nadir) sang everything with scrupulous taste and managed "Je crois entendre encore" without the common transposition, floated high C and all. But this opera is all about lush, beautiful melodies and it demands voices that are as beautiful as the music. There is no real dramatic tension to speak of -- it's not like Elektra or, well, uh, Carmen, where the strength of a singer's personality can negate vocal flaws. If you're going to set the house wild with joy, you better sound like this:

Polenzani gave the best possible performance he could probably give -- his voice is simply not one I personally find beautiful, and he's not a dynamic actor. But in terms of style, musicality, it's there. Damrau and Kwiecien gave their typical A-for-effort performances, but with the flaws that have crept into their voices over time.

Damrau's voice has lost almost all its youthful sheen, and the tone is rather husky, blowsy and colorless. She has a habit of snatching a big, audible breath before she sings forte -- it sounds like she's hiccuping. In her arias "O Dieu Brahma" and "J'étais encore enfant" she checked the boxes of what to do, but without much grace. An extended trill at the end of Act One wavered and went off pitch. Attempts at soft singing were intermittently successful. Dramatically she's lost a lot of the pep and vigor that characterized her early performances. Leila is basically a colonialist fantasy of the Oriental enchantress, but Damrau made no attempt at conveying this sort of exotic glamor, other than relentlessly shedding layers of her thick sarong. Damrau's husband Nicolas Testé (Nouriband) was actually pretty lovely and lyrical and made the most out of his rather small part.

Kwieicien and Damrau, photo by Ken Howard
Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) has pushed his essentially lyric baritone into sounding like the generic "loud baritone." As a result he can sing a large array of baritone roles (Onegin, Don Giovanni, Posa), but all without any distinction or vocal beauty. "Au fond du temple saint" has been a big favorite for baritones and tenors over the years, but with Kwieicien and Polenzani the duet came and went. Kwieien does look cute in black jeans and a t-shirt. (By the way, I find Zurga by far the most sympathetic character of the opera. To face a certain death so your bro and the woman you love can run off together, and singing your melody -- that's noble.)

Gianandrea Noseda can be a relentlessly hard-charging conductor (I remember him storming through La Traviata like Napoleon's army) but his conducting of Pearlfishers was surprisingly toothless and even indifferent. He didn't have a feel for the distinctive rhythms and exotic melodies of Bizet's score -- you were decidedly not transported to the Orient. 

No, just no to the pants. Photo by Ken Howard

Props must go to the always amazing Met chorus, who were onstage singing for much of the evening, 59 Productions and set designer Dick Bird, who created a colorful depiction of a vaguely South Asian port,and Penny Woolcock for treating the opera with respect and affection. There was no attempt to flesh out the thin storyline with "deeper" meanings and thank God -- this is not an opera that calls for much cerebral deconstruction. The two "swimming" aerialists were a nice touch. Costume designer Kevin Pollard however was responsible for Matthew Polenzani's fake tattoo sleeves and dumpy pants, so no cheers for him.

Don't get me wrong. The Met has done New York a great favor by reviving this gem, and it's definitely worth seeing. Damrau, Polenzani, and Kwiecien are all very professional and gave credible performances. They're like the "fish" of "Pearlfishers" -- solid, healthy, full of protein and omega-3. Their voices however are not pearls.

Now, for some contemporary vocal pearls, I found this: (Javier Camarena):

And for contemporary sopranos, I found this: (Sonya Yoncheva):

And now just listen to this:


  1. Great review as usual,Ivy. I agree about Polanzani even if he does everything right.I 've never bought a Met ticket to hear him.

    1. Thanks Madison. I have heard Polenzani many times. Beautiful technique and very musical, but the voice just sounds very generic.

  2. Thank you! I've been reading your reviews for quite some time and just wanted congratulate you on yet another well written, reasonably considered piece. Your estimation of the singers sounds a lot more on the mark based on what I was hearing on the Sirius Fledermaus the other night. Kwiecen in particular sounded very worn and even though he admitted struggling with the French in his interview I was quite shocked to hear how unidiomatic he sounded.

  3. This is a mistake.


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