Before Carmen, there was The Pearl Fishers—the opera that Bizet wrote when he was twenty-five. (He would write Carmen at thirty-six.) The Pearl Fishers is known for one tune, largely—and a great tune it is: “Au fond du temple saint,” the tenor-baritone duet. But the opera as a whole is well worth knowing.

You can know it via the Metropolitan Opera, whose current production premiered in 2015—on New Year’s Eve of that year. The production is the brainchild of Penny Woolcock, a British director known mainly for film (I gather). Her Pearl Fishers is beautiful, exotic, and intelligent—like the opera itself.

Writing in 2016, I said, “The Pearl Fishers has but four singers, three of whom really count: the soprano, the tenor, and the baritone.” True, but the conductor counts maybe most of all.

Last Wednesday night, he was Emmanuel Villaume, a Frenchman, as his name tells you. Villaume led the opera keenly and stirringly. The score was not just pretty, gauzy, and French. It was those things, where appropriate, but also biting, playful, and even ferocious. The score had blood in it. Every page was alive, every page held interest.

“Au fond du temple saint”? It was gleaming and beautiful, and devoid of sentimentalism, which was helpful.

If Elliott keeps this up, he may put some people—fellow baritones—out of work.

Scheduled to sing the baritone role of Zurga was Mariusz Kwiecien, the Polish star. But, indisposed, he was replaced by Alexander Birch Elliott, an American. A star is born? Something like that. Elliott sang confidently and handsomely. (By coincidence, he is a “handsome Joe,” as my grandmother would say. This never hurts in the opera business.) Furthermore, he sang in tune, which is no small gift. And he was convincing in his acting.

If Elliott keeps this up, he may put some people—fellow baritones—out of work.

Javier Camarena, Pretty Yende, and Nicolas Testé (behind). Photo: Marty Sohl.

Javier Camarena, the Mexican tenor, was Nadir. He sang with lyric beauty, which I would like to stress, for this reason: Camarena is known for coloratura (male division) and high notes. He excels in cavatina as well. He is as smooth and enjoyable as any of them.

On Wednesday night, he gave a clinic in breathing, and he navigated his high notes shrewdly. Also—this is big—he takes pleasure in singing. He sings as though he were incredibly lucky to be doing so.

Allow me an aside, please: In this production, the stage director (or someone) has Nadir sit down for his aria. I believe this cost Camarena some body, some vocal substance. I may be wrong in this, but it struck my ear that way.

Leïla, the soprano in The Pearl Fishers, was Pretty Yende, the South African star (budding star). She was occasionally a little thin, but she was always endearing, and the voice broadened—grew richer—as the evening wore on. Moreover, she can deliver more sound, more volume, than you might expect. Let me mention, too, that she executed a neat little trill at the end of her aria.

Pretty Yende is one of those people of whom you could say, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” She gives you a complete package of lyric-soprano appeal.

Pretty Yende. Photo: Marty Sohl.

Nicolas Testé, a French bass-baritone, had the small role of Nourabad, and he lent considerable vocal beauty to it. (This was a theme of the night: vocal beauty, and other beauty.) The chorus is a player in this opera—another soloist, in a sense—and the Met’s sang outstandingly.

Other soloists sat in the pit, of course. I think of the principal flute, whose voice is heard in “Au fond du temple saint.” Seth Morris played his part admirably. At the beginning of Act II, there is a little cello solo—which Rafael Figueroa made the most of.

“It was one of those nights at the opera,” as Martin Bernheimer would say. And, again, a lot hinged on the conducting. Frankly, I’ve heard a lot of good conducting at the Met lately: from Carlo Rizzi, Bertrand de Billy, and others. The thought occurs to me: Could the Met be like the Vienna Philharmonic and have an endless series of guests—top conductors—rather than a full-time music director? Does it hurt the Vienna Phil. (which, as you know, functions as both a symphonic orchestra and an opera orchestra)? Would it hurt the Met?

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