Originally Set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon, the opera tells the story of how two men's vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman, whose own dilemma is the conflict between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess.
This production was updated to arguably modern times, with the pearl fisheries piers floating on oild drums, and ball caps and sneakers in the costuming, but it really didn’t affect the plot.
As the opera begins, Zurga (baritone Mariuz Kweicen) is being elected leader of the fisher’s village, a position that carries with it absolute authority. After he is elected, his friend, Nadir (tenor, Matthew Polenzani) enters. Nadir is a hunter, and has been on a lengthy trip. They greet one another joyously, and reminisce about the time that their friendship was almost torn apart due to rivalry for a woman, but they had both forsworn her and pledged eternal friendship.
The pearl fishers’ village then welcomes a new priestess. A virgin priestess is dedicated to the village for a year to pray for the safety of the fishers. By law, she must remain inviolate and veiled to all. If she keeps her vows for the year, she is rewarded with the finest pearl taken that year, a princely dowry. If she breaks her vows, she is put to death. Leila (Diana Damrau) affirms her vows before the villagers.
Nadir is electrified when he hears her voice. He has lied to Zurga about forgetting the woman they both had desired, and has been seeking Leila’s love during his time away. Leila, in turn, recognizes him.
In the second act, Lelia is established in her temple, which overlooks the ocean on one side, and is guarded by the villagers on the other. Nadir scales the crag to visit her, which throws Lelia into confusion. She loves Nadir, but is terrified he will be found there. After a passionate love duet, of course he is caught, and the two are taken into custody. They are brought before Zurga for judgment. The priest demands their deaths, but Zurga is reluctant until Leila is unveiled. When Zurga realizes that Nadir has broken his promise, he angrily pronounces the death sentence. A terrific storm breaks, echoing his anger and that of the villagers.
Act three begins in Zurga’s office, where he is wrestling with remorse at the pending death of his friend. Lelia gains admittance, and begs for Nadir’s life, saying that he is innocent, he got lost and came to the temple by mistake. Unlikely as it is, Zurga is willing to accept this as an excuse to spare Nadir, until Lelia goes on to confess how she and Nadir love one another. Roused to new fury, Zurga declares that both shall die at dawn.
As she I lead away, Lelia give one of her attendants a pearl that was given to her when she was a girl by a grateful man she had sheltered from an angry mob. After she leaves, Zurga snatched the pearl and recognizes it as the one he himself had given her. He had been the hunted fugitive, and she was the girl who had saved his life.
As dawn approaches, Nadir and Lelia are readied for execution. Zurga appears and calls a halt. He tells the people that the bloody glow in the east is not the sunrise, but that fire has broken out in the village, and that if they wish to save their homes and families they must go to fight the fire now!
Left alone with the prisoners, he frees them, telling them he does so because it was his life that Lelia had saved years ago, and bidding them to escape with their lives. Zurga remains behind, saying that he will take whatever comes. The lights go down on him, with his village blazing in the background.
Although the plot (libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré) is distinctly contrived, the music by Bizet is lush and beautiful. The first act mens’ duet, "Au fond du temple saint", is a favorite concert piece. All the principals sang beautifully, and acted with enough believable passion to carry the story along.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda lead the orchestra with skill and aplomb, and the production looked very good, with the modern details merging into the milieu very quickly. The overture was accompanied by a spectacular “water ballet” featuring some of the company’s more acrobatic dancers employing a new and upgraded flying harness, which, coupled with computerized projections, gave a remarkable illusion of swimming above the stage.
We were very glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy this uncommonly performed opera.
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