BWW Review: Who Will Survive Barcelona's PECHEURS DE PERLES at the Liceu?
George Bizet--best known, of course, for CARMEN--wrote another opera that has become increasingly (and justifiably) popular in recent years, LES PECHEURS DE PERLES, better known in the English-speaking world as THE PEARL FISHERS.
The new production--which came from the Theatre an der Wien in Vienna--at Barcelona's beautiful Liceu opera house is by Lotte de Beer, a Dutch director who's known for taking outrageous approaches to standard rep that appeal to younger audiences (and sometimes leave the older folk booing). In general, she calls for a visual style--her partners in crime were scenic designer Marousha Levy to Alex Brok's lighting, with some unusual costumes, particularly for the dancers, by Jorine van Beek--that comes in below budget, though the temple scene in PECHEURS was gorgeous.
In other words, she's from the school of directing that often seems to care less for fidelity to the original than for taking a gimmicky approach that probably makes the audience laugh and/or cringe for the wrong reasons. The action, as in the original, takes place in Sri Lanka--long enough ago that it was still called Ceylon--but in an undetermined era, which makes it appealing to directors like de Beer, who want to take a stab at putting a special spin on it.
And while she didn't exactly have me booing--the marvelous singing from tenor John Osborn as the fisherman Nadir and the exquisitely buoyant soprano Ekaterina Bakanova as the priestess Leila, in particular, was too good, under the smart baton of Yves Abel and the orchestra and chorus of the Liceu--the director's approach left me pretty unsatisfied.
De Lotte's idea for the production hearkens to "Survivor," the reality show: A group of contestants are stranded in a remote location with little more than the clothes on their back and the survivor usually takes home a pot of gold--or the current equivalent.
Here, of course, using at least some of the plot points from Bizet's PECHEUR (libretto by Cormon and Caree), there's more at stake than filthy lucre, since the soprano and tenor--two thirds of a love triangle with the baritone (of course), Zurga (Michael Adams)--face death. Long before the opera begins, Nadir and Zurga, best friends, had discovered themselves both in love with Leila and decided their friendship came first and she was abandoned.
As the story starts, the two men have gone off on their own ways, Nadir a fisherman and Zurga now head of the village. But fate interacts one day as Nadir returns home and he recognizes the sweet voice of the priestess, whose prayers are needed to keep a storm away from the island. He knows it is Leila and the animal attraction between them is too much: He is disloyal to his friend and she betrays her religion. Zurga's anger gets the best of him and wants them punished, while Nourabad, the high priest (and host of the "Survivor"-like series), bass Fernando Rado, wants her sacrificed, even though the storm has already struck and passed.
In de Beer's concept, members of the chorus--here, TV watchers looming over the action in an apartment-like structure (which becomes a full moon thanks to a scrim) like Hitchcock's "Rear Window," get to vote on whether or not the lovers die. Spoiler alert: The viewers don't have the last word, as Zurga (as in the original libretto) ends up being the good guy and takes their place, while Leila and Nadir flee the island.
As I mentioned earlier, the singing of the soprano and tenor were particularly outstanding. The Russian Bakanova--who had her big break in London when she stepped in on several hours' notice to perform Violetta at Covent Garden--brought a sweet voice and charming stage presence. (It also didn't hurt that she's attractive because, in de Beer's version, she is not veiled for much of the action as Leila is at the Met these days.) She sang a potent "O Dieu Brahma," choosing Nadir over her duties as priestess.
Tenor Osborn, a Met National Council winner, has specialized in bel canto-ish roles (he recorded the Rossini OTELLO with Bartoli and was one of the bevy of tenors with Renee Fleming in ARMIDA at the Met). Here, he brought some lovely singing in his duet with the appealing Adams as Zurga, the opera's famed "Au fond du temple saint", as well as his solo aria, declaring his love for Leila, "Je crois entendre encore."
The only problematic one of the principals was Rado as Nourabad--not so much for his singing but the way the role has been reconfigured to fit the "Survivor" concept. The director's version needed him to do certain things that simply didn't make sense in the context of the original role's demands and, I believe, his singing suffered for it.
Noelia Rua's choreography was certainly lively, particularly with van Beek's costume finery. The chorus, under Conxita Garcia, did a fine job, under sometimes odd circumstances, while the orchestra under Abel sounded lush and appealing.
An alternate cast allowed the opera to be performed an astonishing ten times in a 12-day period: Olga Kulchynska as Leila, Dmitry Korchak as Nadir, Borja Quiza as Zurga and Federico Michelis as Nourabad.