I watched this 2017 production by the New York City Metropolitan Opera company two nights ago and really enjoyed it. I thought that it was a superb production, well sung. I learned that the only other time that the New York Met had put on this little-performed opera was way back in 1918 featuring opera legend Enrico Caruso.
The story is set in a pearl diving fishing village in ancient Sri Lanka, though this production had people in modern dress, seemingly in the 1950s. It tells of two close friends Zurga and Nadir who both fall in love with the same woman Leila. They agree to preserve their friendship by not pursuing her any further. She in turn becomes a priestess that requires a promise to keep her face veiled from everyone and remain a virgin. Leila later becomes the priestess of the village where Zurga is the leader but he does not recognize the veiled woman. But Zurga becomes intensely jealous when he discovers that Leila and Nadir had indeed secretly pursued their love before their earlier parting, and that on meeting again after she became a priestess in the village, they still loved each other. When it is discovered that they met secretly, it causes a major uproar.
I liked many things about this production, in addition to the music. I think that my enjoyment of any art form, whether it be novels, films, plays, or operas, is greatly enhanced when I empathize with the characters and get really engaged with the story. Perhaps this is why I have so far enjoyed the drama and tragedy operas much more than the one comedy The Barber of Seville that I saw. In The Pearl Fishers, I got really caught up in the anguish of the main characters as they struggled through emotions of love, jealousy, and rage.
Here is a duet between Zurga and Nadir, sung when they meet again in the village after a long separation and just before Leila arrives as the veiled priestess. They reminisce about the past and vow to remain friends forever.
One highlight is the superb production of this opera. The sets and costumes were excellent, realistic and impressive and yet not distracting from the performers. It captured well the teeming atmosphere of fishing village life, with a lot of people doing various things. But the highlight was the opening scene during the overture (and once again later) where pearl fishers were shown swimming underwater in the deep blue ocean with filtered sunlight. The motions of the swimmers were so realistic, capturing the languid, fluid motions of people propelling themselves through water that I thought that whole scene had been filmed underwater and then projected on a screen, since there seemed to be no way that could be done on a stage.
But in a segment shown after the opera ended, they revealed that the ‘swimmers’ were in fact actors who were hanging from the top using wires. Although they were essentially flying, they were able to mimic the motion of swimmers going through water, with the blue ocean created by lighting. The ‘bubbles’ that emerged from the swimmers mouths that greatly added to the verisimilitude were created by computers whose operators followed the motions of the swimmers and projected their bursts of release on to a screen so that they appeared to come from the swimmers’ mouths. It was a great piece of special effects.
Here is footage of that opening scene from an earlier production in 2010 that was not quite as good but impressive nonetheless. Unfortunately it does not have the bubbles but you get to see the artistry of the aerialists.
There is one anachronism that I found amusing but only someone with intimate knowledge of Sri Lanka would have noticed it. In Zurga’s room at one point he turns on an old black-and-white TV with rabbit-ears antenna. That would be consistent with the general 1950s setting but Sri Lanka did not introduce TV until the 1970s. The country entirely skipped the black-and-white phase and went straight to color.
The next opera I will be watching is Verdi’s Aida on Monday.