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BWW Review: PERLES of Wonder from Damrau and Polenzani at the Met

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Matthew Polenzani as Nadir. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Diana Damrau as Leila. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

One more BOHEME? Yet another TOSCA? How about BARBIERE redux? Sometimes the standard repertoire of opera companies seems too standard--so one can only imagine how it feels for the artists who sing these works not only here and there, but everywhere. One can't quite blame companies for performing works more likely to bring in audiences, yet...

That's why it was good to hear that the Met was mounting Bizet's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES for the first time in a century, as a showcase for one of its top divas, Diana Damrau, who is also a favorite of mine, with tenor Matthew Polenzani, one of the company's secret treasures. It has been 25 years since City Opera's last performance of the work in New York (Opera Orchestra did it in 2002), so it was about time we got to see the work by a youthful Bizet (libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre) fully staged.

Damrau and Polenzani made it worth the wait, as the priestess Leila and the pearl fisher, Nadir, in a dynamic performance from the Met orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda. There was thrilling, ardent singing from the pair, in this updated staging from Penny Woolcock, originally heard at the English National Opera, which was slightly frantic but not enough to detract from these two able performers.

The soprano's glistening, agile soprano was a good fit for Bizet's youthful score, written when CARMEN was not even a glimmer in his eye. It was a pleasure to hear her in "Comme autrefois" and the gorgeous "O Dieu Brahma"--and she was equally matched by Polenzani's beautiful singing in "Je crois entendre encore." The score's most famous number is certainly the duet "Au fond du temple saint," for the tenor and the third principal, his best bud, village head man Zurga. This time around, however, the pair was not well matched, with baritone Mariusz Kwiecien giving a rather rough performance. Zurga also pines for Leila (does anyone "pine" anymore?) but he obviously is unfamiliar with operatic conventions that almost always give the edge to the tenor, though he was polite enough not to stand in the way of "true love." The last of the principals was bass-baritone Nicolas Teste as the heavy of the piece, Nourabad, the high priest, who does his best to break Leila's spirit in the name of Brahma. His resonant voice made me wish he had more singing in the piece.

I'm not sure that moving the action from "ancient times" in "Ceylon" (now, Sri Lanka) to something vaguely modern in the "Far East" added anything to the action, except for a few laughs in the man-cave of Zurga (Kwiecien), which came complete with television. Still, the handsome scenic design by Dick Bird and lighting by Jen Schriever generally worked well (the opening could have doubled for THE KING AND I across Lincoln Center plaza) and the bold projections by 59 Productions added appropriate tension to the proceedings. Kevin Pollard's costumes were caught up in the updating of the piece--in some never, never land--in particular, I wish Polenzani's outfit and hair didn't remind me of Justin Bieber.

Is LES PECHEURS DE PERLES ready for prime time? When there are principals like Damrau and Polenzani at the fore, surely the answer is "yes."

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From This Author Richard Sasanow