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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Opera Review: The King is Half-Undressed

The Met revives Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pearl jam: Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena canoodle in Act II of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles.
Photo © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
The big story from Tuesday night's performance of Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles ("The Pearl Fishers") at the Metropolitan Opera happened at the start of the second act. As the lights dimmed and conductor Emmanuel Villaume took his bow from the podium, an announcement was made from the stage.

"Mariusz Kwiecien, singing the role of Zurga has taken ill. His replacement is  Alexander Birch Elliot."

For singers, opera is an endurance art. The replacement of a singer in the middle of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera is not an unheard of occurrence. It happens. (I myself once saw Placido Domingo step offstage as Siegmund in the middle of Act I of Die Walküre. His replacement was Gary Lehman: taller, bearded and wearing the white sneakers he hadn't had time to change out of.) But what's unusual here is that Mr. Kwiecien has done this vanishing act three times in a row this fall: singing the opera's Big Hit Tune (the Act One tenor-baritone friendship duet "A fond du temple saint") and then being suddenly to ill to handle the more technical, vocally demanding stuff in Acts II and III.

As he entered in Act I, Mr. Kwiecien didn't seem sick. He  cut a convincing, dashing figure as Zurga, the newly elected "king" of a fishing community somewhere on the island of Sri Lanka. (This staging uses a nonspecific East Asian locale and modern dress, but keeps the exoticism intact while minimizing the libretto's ugly racism.) In his duet with tenor Javier Camarena, he oozed good fellowship, soaring over Mr. Villaume's accompaniment with a sweet and plangent tone. Mr. Camarena, as his best bro turned romantic foil was a sweet and innocent Nadir (yes, that's the character's name, yes that's funny in English) wielding his flexible tenor with the ease of a fencing master.

Mr. Elliot came on in toward the end of the second act, and at first sang with a constricted and rough tone. The instrument and the dramatic depths of Zurga came to life in Act III, in the ugly confrontation that the love-struck ruler has with Leila (Pretty Yende), the opera's heroine. With his powerful, muscular singing and warm tone, this may be a breakout role for this 32-year-old American artist. And if Mr. Kwiecien continues his cancellation trend throughout the four remaining performances, this opportunity may lead to bigger roles in better operas down the line.

Pretty Yende is now a familiar face at the Met, but the South African singer has generally specialized in bel canto and opera buffa. The role of Leila, a virginal Brahmin priestess who has romantic history with both leading men was admirably suited to her instrument. She sung with expert control, bringing dimension to her character and slowly unveiling the silvery upper register that is this singers calling card. The libretto does not give her character much in the way of dimension so she used her voice to make Leila into a believable and sympathetic figure.

She was well paired with Mr. Camarena, and the two singers seemed to relish their long Wagnerian duet that precedes the discovery of their relationship and the opera's central crisis. Mr. Camarena unpacked his voice for this, singing Bizet's unison duet lines with the soprano and exhibiting a boyish charm. The two hapless lovers are discovered and turned in by Zurga, who (in a twist unusual for opera) decides to save them from being burned to death and ushers them off to freedom at the evening's end.

This is the second run for Penny Woolcock's imaginative and enchanting production, which moves the action to an indeterminate time and place and avoids the embarrassment of forcing an international cast of singers to smear their faces with dark foundation. The visuals, dominated by rolling projections of tsunami-like waves and dancers in "underwater" flying rigs give the opening vista a spectacular bent out of Wagner's Das Rheingold. However there's no clumsy, clanking set: just the deft use of curtains, scrims and a set of waterside platforms onto which the chorus crowds itself.

There's only one other role in this opera: a sort of overbearing high priest Nourabad, played by Nicolas Testé. He sang his few scenes with dark and lucid power. In the pit, Mr. Villaume gave a bold and luxurious account of the score. The opera was also powered by the always excellent Metropolitan Opera Chorus, who went from placid peasants to angry mob with the frightening speed of a modern political rally.

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