BWW Review: Nothing Fishy about Replacement Baritone Elliott in PECHEURS at the Met

BWW Review: Nothing Fishy about Replacement Baritone Elliott in PECHEURS at the Met
Alexander Birch Elliott's surprise debut.

We thought things were exciting last week, when Christian Van Horn brought his Mefistofele to the Met last week, getting all his exercise for the month in the athletic staging and nailing his first big role in the house. However, that was "business as usual" compared to the mid-performance debut, just a few days later, of baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, as Zurga, in Bizet's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS) in the opera's first performance of the season.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in the house for what was reportedly his thrilling introduction to Met audiences in the leading baritone role, leaving me with a "Gee, too bad I wasn't there..." (Not that I wished baritone Mariusz Kwiecien any harm.) Well, sometimes history does repeat itself.

Once again, Kwiecien's Zurga made it through Act I of the opera--with his stellar costars, soprano Pretty Yende as the priestess Leila and tenor Javier Camarena as her love, Nadir--only to have the kind of an announcement at the start of Act II that brings groans to the crowd. It seemed that Kwiecien--who sounded fine, though the human voice can be a mysterious thing--was indisposed and the 32-year-old Elliott would go on again.

How did the newcomer do? He sounded accomplished, if a little demure, when he made his entrance in Act II: There were no fireworks to speak of. After that, things changed dramatically (in all sense of the word) when he got to his "home office" in Act III, the oddly designed set by Dick Bird in Penny Woolcock's production that looked like the digs of a hoarder.

Elliott grabbed the (bare) breast-beating aria about condemning to death his best friend and the "vestal virgin"-type he lusted for and throttled it to within an inch of its life. His sturdy voice and ardent acting made the aria, "L'orage s'est calme," the most exciting singing of the evening. His vulnerability in the opera's finale--as he let the lovers off the hook--made a touching, if not quite believable, end to the evening. I look forward to hearing him again, even if the adrenaline's not bursting from his veins the next time, as it surely was on Saturday.

BWW Review: Nothing Fishy about Replacement Baritone Elliott in PECHEURS at the Met
Javier Camarena and Pretty Yende.
Photo by Marty Sohl/Met Opera

PECHEURS is no CARMEN--the composer was only 25 when he wrote it--and it seems to have a little music that is pushed a long way during the short (for opera) evening of 2-½ hours, with lots of repetition. The cast, which certainly looked appealing on paper, was a mixed bag in delivering the goods across the footlights.

Yende and Camarena had made a potent duo in the hilarity of IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA but it didn't quite translate here. (They had also recently done I PURITANI at the Liceu in Barcelona.) She had some intonation problems and likely needed a little more directorial help from the revival's director, Stephen Pickover, in a role that couldn't draw on her bubbly charms. (Having her hidden under a veil much of the time probably didn't help, either.) Her best moments were in the duet with Nadir, "Léïla! Léïla!...Dieu puissant, le voilà!"

Camarena brought his gorgeous tenor to the role, particularly in Nadir's "Je crois entendre encore." Still, no matter how good he sounded, how urgent his singing, the role gave him little opportunity to put across his charming personality or sense of fun. I look forward to his Tonio in LA FILLE DU REGIMENT, with that string of high Cs, which he and Yende are doing early next year at the Met.

BWW Review: Nothing Fishy about Replacement Baritone Elliott in PECHEURS at the Met
Javier Camarena and Pretty Yende, with Nicolas
Teste (behind). Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

The last of the principals was bass Nicolas Teste, properly fearsome as the high priest, Nourabad, who was in the production's 2015 premiere. He's the one who gives Leila her marching orders--don't talk or be friendly with anyone--and seemed very threatening to her (but, then, might just have been dyspeptic from missing his wife, Diana Damrau, who was Leila last time around).

The Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, was in good form and the Met orchestra sounded properly French under Emmanuel Villaume (who looked a little casual during the scene changes).

Other than Zurga's lair, Dick Bird's set, with lighting by Andrew Dawson, seemed fine, although there was no reason for the update demanded by Woo1cock, other than to give Zurga a mini-fridge to keep a supply of beer. (The swimming pearl fishers, directed by Andrew Dawson, doing their Weeki Wachee maneuvers behind the scrim, were a nice touch, though, reminiscent of the Rhinemaidens in the Met's old Ring cycle.) Kevin Pollard's costumes went well with the stage design, but it would have been nice if we could have seen some of Leila's facial expressions through her veil.

Whatever the opera's shortcomings, however, the excitement of hearing a fine new voice in the house was enough to leave the audience cheering--and it certainly did.

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Additional performances of PECHEURS will be on November 20, 24 (matinee) and 28, plus December 1 and 8. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time is about 2-½ hours with one intermission.

Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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