A Golden Age of Opera
Go See “The Pearl Fishers” in HD Near You This Saturday

Earlier this week, Nicholas M. Gallagher wrote a rave review in these pages of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet. This prompted one longtime reader to comment that, “It’s only on rare occasions like this that I envy your living in NYC.” (H/t @LukeLea) And indeed, the regular performance of opera is one “New York value” that many of us can embrace. But this weekend, you don’t have to live in the Big Apple to see The Pearl Fishers. On Saturday, January 16, at 12:55 PM, the matinee production of this other Bizet masterpiece will be broadcast to 2,000 movie theaters worldwide as part of the Met in HD program. (Click here to find a cinema near you.)

It’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss, if you have the time. As Gallagher wrote:

All but eclipsed by Bizet’s more famous Carmen, The Pearl Fishers tells the story of two Sri Lankan divers, Nadir and Zurga, who both fell in love with the same Hindu priestess, Leila. For the sake of their friendship, they vowed not to pursue her—but when Leila (soprano Diana Damrau) comes to their village, Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani) is unable to help himself. The villagers catch the couple in flagrante delicto in the midst of a tempest, blame the destructive storm on Leila’s failure to keep her vow of virginity, and demand the pair be put to death. Overwhelmed by jealousy, Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), who has recently been appointed village chieftain, condemns the two. Just as Nadir and Leila are about to be burned alive, however, Zurga bursts back onstage with news that the village is aflame. While villagers rush to save their children, he cuts his old friend and his beloved free, confiding that it was he who set the fire. The couple flees to live in happiness, while Zurga remains to face his fate.

The traditional rap on Pearl Fishers is that it has a weak libretto and brilliant but uneven music. But the Met’s new staging, directed by Penny Woolcock, reveals unexpected dramatic depth as well as moments of intense lyric beauty, all brought to life by a stunning set (by Dick Bird) and strong acting. At its New Years’ Eve gala opening, the new Pearl Fishers received ovation after ovation.[..]

The audience could appreciate the performance more completely, Gallagher argued, because of two (relatively) new technologies that are changing opera—one of which is the Met in HD program:

The first supertitles were introduced in the early 1980s; the back-of-the-seat “Met Titles” came into use in 1995. That means we’re only one generation into a world in which American audience members can yet again understand the words they’re listening to. It took a while for the new possibilities to sink in for directors, for a new generation of singers trained to be as much actors as vocal stars to grow up, and for audiences to work through the old classics under new conditions. The first time they were intelligible to audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the repertory standards must have seemed marvelously fresh. After a few reinterpretations of the same 40–60 works, though, it makes sense to start expanding our horizons.

Similarly, the Met in HD program, which at ten years old is even younger, also disrupted old expectations. For one thing, you can now see a dozen or more operas a year without living in Manhattan or going bankrupt (but I repeat myself). For another, the pressure on singers to act increases when they know their facial expressions will be seen up close and in HD. When Pearl Fishers gets its turn for the Hollywood treatment on January 16, it will be broadcast to 2,000 cinemas and 70 continents—that’s a lot of close-ups.

Together, these technologies have been changing the rules of the game. By removing the language barrier, supertitles (or the subtitles, in the case of the Met in HD broadcasts) allow for the rediscovery of operas as dramas—which expands the repertory.

As a result, more works are coming back to life—and being seen by more people, in more places. We highly recommend you read the whole thing—and then go see The Pearl Fishers.

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