Les Pecheurs de Perles, a lesser-known composition about a pearl fishing village in Ceylon by Georges Bizet(of Carmen fame), before now was last done at the Met about a century ago, using a corrupted libretto(Bizet’s more authentic manuscripts weren’t found and used until very recently), and then forgotten about for a long time. Not without some good cause, since the story is a mix of melodrama and 19th-century Orientalism, a depiction of people from the far east who will ritually murder people. But then soprano Diana Damreau wanted to sing it, and convinced the Met to put it on so she could-while wearing a very light tanface, which was at best a questionable thing to do, and actually turned out to be the most problematic detail of the show that was broadcast Saturday.
One can understand why she wanted to sing it, though. The music is absolutely gorgeous, from the opening chords(accompanied Saturday by a spectacular aerial show that showed people diving for pearls), to the lovely duets between the three main characters. But while Damreau was good, she was rather outsung by both her male co-stars. Matthew Polenzani and Marius Kwiecien were helped there by having the standout number from the score, which they played unafraid of the homoeroticism, but Polenzani almost stole the first act with his passionate solo aria there, and Kwiecien emerged as the true lead of the opera in the third with both his singing and his moving acting, making the melodramatic end truly heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, director Penny Woolcock was smart enough to take the opera out of exotic Ceylon and instead put it in modern-day Sri Lanka(the program claimed it was just an unspecified eastern location, but the billboard in the first act and the map of the country on the wall in the third belied that), putting the chorus in a mix of traditional and modern clothes, creating hovels with electric lights, and removing in the third act to a modern office with a laptop and vintage TV. This put the story of villagers afraid of storms and the rising sea into a whole new context, one where we are aware these are people whose home and very lives are threatened by climate change. When they put their hopes on Damraeu’s priestess character to stop the storms, one has to figure the most recent years have been bad enough to make them desperate, and when they prepare at the end to kill her and Polenzani, one is quick to realize they’re scapegoating them for more than just the most recent weather, but for everything they in reality can’t do anything about, but are unwilling to accept their helplessness in the face of. Once, the ritualistic murdering seemed ridiculous to the modern mind. Now, in the era of ISIS and similar, it feels all too plausible.
Whether or not most of the people involved in this production realized that is an interesting question, although I’d like to think Woolcock did. But either way, it makes this opera resonate in a way that perhaps it never has before. This is one production that might stay on for a while.