Alexander Elliot is a Pearl of a Baritone

Baritone Alexander Birch Elliot made a spectacular last minute debut
Tonight at the Met the curtain fell on a rather hum-drum first act of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles. No one was exactly bad, but it wasn't very exciting either, AND the opera's two big hits ("Au fond du temple saint," the tenor-baritone bromance national anthem, and "Je crois entendre encore," the falsetto national anthem) were already over and done with. So I expected the performance to chug along at the same low-energy pace to its conclusion.

Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) was nappy and a bit raw, with a few near cracks. Javier Camarena was strangely muted in affect. Pretty Yende didn't have much to sing in Act One, and what she did sing ("O Dieu Brahma") had a nice trill but uncertain intonation. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume conducted at such fast speeds that there was no stretching of the vocal line in "Au fond" or "Je crois." Legato became staccato.

Here is something like how Camarena and Kwiecien sounded last night. There really isn't the breath control and legato for this duet to make its full impact:

 If you compare it to this, you can hear where Merrill and Bjoerling have the control in their voices to elongate the musical phrases:

Birch Elliot and Yende, photo @ Marty Sohl
Then after intermission there was a curtain announcement. Mariusz Kwiecien had taken "suddenly ill" and would be replaced by Alexander Birch Elliot, who was making his "Met debut." The audience groaned. Mid-performance replacements are often a grim crawl to the finish line, as the cover is often a comprimario type who knows the role and that's it. But Alexander Birch Elliot was the type of cover that had everyone googling him by the time the curtain came down. What a triumph for him.

Elliot judging from his operabase only made his debut in 2015. His voice is a young one, but you can hear the potential. He has a firm, resonant timbre that is ideal for these sorts of lyric baritone roles. For someone making an intermission debut he seemed well-versed in the production blocking and engaged in the character. And yes he looked nice in the black t-shirt and jeans that Zurga has to change into in the third act. This was the first I ever heard of him but I hope it won't be the last. In fact if he gets to sing the whole opera again because Kwiecien cancels I'll make another trip to Ceylon just to hear him sing Zurga.

Camarena and Yende, photo @ Metopera
The other singers also either warmed up during intermission or were shot with a jolt of adrenaline because both Camarena and Yende improved in the second half of the opera. Their voices sounded fuller  and they projected better into the auditorium. Their duet "Léïla! Léïla!...Dieu puissant, le voilà!" was beautiful, with their voices blending well together.

Yende is a curious case. It's easy to see why she gets hired often -- she's got a pretty face and pretty voice (pun intended). Her vocal instrument is well-produced with a large range, and she is able to sing a variety of lyric coloratura parts. But there's something missing from her portrayals and I can't put my finger on it. Passion? Expressiveness? Connection to character and text? Lack of legato? (She overuses staccato vocal effects to the point of tiresomeness.) I've seen her in a several roles and she's always been competent and pleasing but never moving. Oh well. Leila is a rather empty character anyway and she does sound good most of the time.

Javier Camarena has sung Nadir in L.A., Zurich, and Salzburg. The role is a quieter, less showy role than his usual bel canto wheelhouse.  There are no cabalettas where he can interpolated high C's in Pearlfishers. He didn't have the breath control to give "Je crois entendre encore" those long tapering musical lines that are a staple of this aria. Still, his voice and stage presence is one that audiences naturally respond to --  he has an amazing upper register, a warm sunny timbre, and an inherently likable personality. If you think about it Nadir is the less sympathetic character than Zurga -- Zurga is the one who truly loves Leila as he sacrifices himself so Nadir and Leila can ride off in the sunset despite Nadir's betrayal. But who could dislike Javier Camarena?

Kwiecien, photo @ Metopera
As for Kwiecien, I hope he feels better soon but the past few times I've heard him he's sounded pretty much how he sounded in the first act last night -- raw, hoarse and with an artificially darkened timbre. For someone who is essentially a lyric baritone his voice has something akin to a Bayreuth bark. Nicolas Teste as the priest Nourabad is solid if not exactly inspired. The Met chorus always sounds amazing although last night they sounded a little less amazing than usual? A bit sluggish.

Emmanuel Villaume's tempi were inordinately fast in the first act. As I mentioned, he took the two big showpieces at such a fast clip there was no time to luxuriate in these two dreamy melodies. In the second half when the storyline slows to a halt one appreciated his determination to empty the auditorium in record time. Indeed, the whole opera was over by 10:00. That's practically unheard of today.

Penny Woolcock's production is less impressive on second viewing. It seems split into two operas -- the parts with Leila and the Brahmin take place in antiquity and is classic Oriental exotica. Kevin Pollard's costumes for her and the Brahmin are old fashioned. Saris with veils, the whole shebang. The opera proper with Zunga, Nadir and the pearlfishers takes place in a present-day shanty-like harbor, and Nadir wears sleeves that have tattoos drawn on to give the illusion that he's a tattoo'ed up fisherman. The chorus does an endless series of stylized "prayer" movements as if all people ever did in the fishing village was pray 24/7. For some reason constant stylized arm movements of chorus has become de rigeur in newer productions. Sometimes I feel like telling the directors "just let them sing!" I did enjoy the deep "divers" during the prelude and the elaborate unit set.

At the end of the evening all four principals came out for bows. The applause for Elliot was thunderous. He even got pelted with a bouquet and hesitated before picking it up. It's too soon to say a star was born but a pearl was definitely found.

And here is some Alexander Elliot I found on Youtube:


  1. Wow! He's terrific. Another great Merola graduate. I want to hear more.

    1. Here's another video I found:

  2. Alexander was one of the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Oregon District winners

  3. He was in the Resident Artists program here in Portland OR, so I was lucky to hear him at the opera, and also at the local Met auditions at Portland State. He had a very good rapport with the audience.

  4. MK withdrew after the first act on Nov. 17, and Elliott stepped in a second time.

    1. I wonder if MK will actually make it through a performance tonight.


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