I like to do my research before seeing a show. This gives me some idea as to whether I will like a show before I even make the decision to see it, and by keeping myself on top of the plot and -- especially important in a musical -- the lyrics, it allows me to focus on the individual aspects of that specific performance rather than trying to keep a gauge on the show as a whole. The operas haven't changed for over a hundred years. The productions have.
I attended the Met Live in HD broadcast of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers the other day. I'll be calling it The Pearl Fishers because I don't want to have to spell out that impossible French title with all the accents. Now I'm going to get into a lot of stuff about drama and playwriting and Carmen later that has nothing to do with this production, so if you're just here for the review, I'm going to get it out of the way quickly now. Everything was great. The audio in the broadcast sounded off a few times. I wasn't a huge fan of Polenzani's falsetto in Je Crois Entendre Encore, but that's a matter of preference. The divers at the beginning were amazing. All in all, the blending of projections with the staging elements was very well done. Pacing was terrific (I don't think I ever realized before just how short this opera is), but fell through when long set changes had to be made behind a projection of water to get to and from an interior set in Act III. Said interior set (which appeared to be an office) was the only bit of the modernization of the production that seemed awkward to me.
Now on to the nitpicky plot stuff. Feel free to leave now. This is why I named this blog Secco Recit.
I had already made myself familiar with the opera before I saw the Live in HD, but even if I hadn't, it's one of those operas that makes it pretty clear to you exactly how it's going to play out right from the first scene. But despite the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen and when, as a testament to the quality of the opera, Penny Woolcock's production, and the talent of the singers playing the four leads, I was still completely taken by surprise at every turn, and engaged right to the end. (Speaking of the end, is it just me or is this another opera Andrew Lloyd Weber totally ripped off in Phantom Of The Opera?)
This is the hallmark of a good thriller. Shocking twists only go so far. Foreshadowing and dramatic irony must be employed to keep the audience one step ahead of the characters. Excitement is maintained through sustained anticipation. This is why Il Trovatore is effective even though the main plot twist is handed to you on a platter during the exposition. By setting up the twist early, the audience gets engaged in Count Di Luna's actions because they know how he's setting up his own undoing. What's more, if we were told nothing and only discovered the twist at the same time that Azucena reveals it to Di Luna, it would be ham-fisted and forced in to give Di Luna one last dramatic moment. But since we know before he does, his reaction is that much juicier.
The Pearl Fishers is more subtle. It is, on the face of it, a fairly simple love triangle plot with no major twists that aren't given away or foreshadowed well in advance. And it's not a very exciting action-packed opera either, at least not until the last act. But to start, it has a very slow leisurely pace to it. So what keeps it moving? Well, despite the fact that the plot seems less exciting than that of Il Trovatore, the libretto of The Pearl Fishers is much more streamlined. Even the most plot-oriented operas (and there aren't very many of them) waste time on pointless choruses or waltz numbers of what have you. The Pearl Fishers jumps right into the exposition, and from then on hardly a minute of music is wasted. The result is that despite its slow pace toward the beginning, the simple plot and streamlined libretto means the opera is very short and never dull.
The Pearl Fishers of course screams for comparison with Bizet's other well-known opera, one of the best-known of the genre, Carmen. Like The Pearl Fishers, Carmen is a love triangle. (I say triangle rather than quadrilateral because I think it's about time we resigned ourselves to the fact that, sympathetic though her character may be, Micaela doesn't actually do anything.)
The characters in The Pearl Fishers are two pearl fishers (of course), and a priestess. The characters in Carmen are a gypsy, a soldier, and a bullfighter. Quite the exciting crowd. And indeed, Carmen gets off to a more exciting start than The Pearl Fishers. But in the later acts, I find the situations reverse. Carmen gets bogged down and starts to drag, while The Pearl Fishers picks up and drives to an exciting conclusion. And the reason for this I think is simply that less is more. The Pearl Fishers only uses what it needs (emphasized, I think, by the fact that it has literally only three characters), which means that once it warms the audience up, it doesn't need to work to keep them there. Carmen is loaded down with excess baggage, which, while flashy, gets in the way of the drama later on. Take the entire character of Escamillo. He is given a big showy entrance in which he sings one of the most famous arias in all of opera. He's a bullfighter, he's a bad boy, he's a baritone. But beyond that, he is woefully underdeveloped. He is a one-dimensional archetype who exists to give Carmen someone with whom to make Don Jose jealous. And for the plot to move along, it's necessary that Don Jose have a rival to be jealous of, but when Escamillo is written in solely to be that rival, with no depth of his own, it draws attention to the fact that the whole plot is Don Jose loves Carmen, Carmen loves someone else, Don Jose kills Carmen. The fortune-telling is a sidenote. The smugglers are a sidenote. Even Zuniga is a sidenote. Jose letting Carmen escape in the first act is more than enough impetus to start his downward spiral even without having to waste an entire act (the last half of Act II and the first half of Act III) detailing it. Remember, this is opera we're talking about. If Act I ends with Jose freeing Carmen and being arrested, Act II can open with him disgraced and impoverished on the streets of Seville, and, given the presence of the obligatory rival, that would lead to the exact same ending.
Unless, you might argue, the whole point of the opera is just how much Don Jose does give up for Carmen before she leaves him. In which case that would justify Zuniga and the smugglers, so Jose can make three decisions that jeopardize his reputation before Carmen leaves him. But that doesn't change the fact that the smugglers are an addition just for that purpose, and Escamillo is still underdeveloped. Not to mention Micaela still doesn't do anything. But suppose Jose's final sacrifice for Carmen is a complete rejection of Micaela? As the opera stands, Jose never really addresses her Suppose he were to send her away, even ignore her when she tells him his mother is dying, because he cannot bring himself to leave Carmen -- eve as Carmen is mocking him and openly wishing he would go? That would be the bottom of Jose's descent rather than the slight mitigation it gets from his devotion to his mother in the opera proper. It would be a difficult choice for Jose to make -- one that would make clear his downward spiral by his even having to make it -- and once he'd made it, it would render Carmen's leaving him for Escamillo all the more soul-crushing for him. Not to mention it would make Micaela actually important to the plot. What's more, suppose that Carmen were arrested in Act I for possessing contraband rather than for randomly attacking a factory girl? That would justify the smugglers in Act III, tying everyone up into one neat Chekov-friendly plot. What's more, outside of that one stabbing incident, Carmen, for all her issues, never shows any violent tendencies, so it would be a little less solely-in-their-for-the-purpose-of-getting-Carmen-arrested.
Now let's look at The Pearl Fishers. The plot of The Pearl Fishers takes longer to set up, and the reason is simply that every member of the love triangle is very much invested in the other two. The only important perceptions in Carmen are Jose's view toward Carmen, Carmen's view toward Jose, and Carmen's view toward Escamillo. In The Pearl Fishers, Zurga, Nadir, and Leila are each concerned with the other two. Six relationships have to be set up. Zurga to Nadir, Nadir to Zurga, Nadir to Leila, Leila to Nadir, Zurga to Leila, and Leila to Zurga. The love triangle is exactly that. A triangle. And, in fact, it's so thoroughly developed that when Nadir and Leila sing their love duet, it's treated as though Nadir cheated on Zurga. In fact, that's the point that Zurga's most caught up on in Act III, at least until Leila tries to plead on Nadir's behalf and ends up making things worse. None of the characters are perfect (I particularly blame Nadir for everything that goes wrong), but that keeps them interesting and gives their relationships color.
Those six relationships between those three characters are the entire meat of the opera. In fact, the whole opera is just those three characters (and the priest, Nourabad). There is no excess, and this allows the audience to be fully immersed in the central triangle. Even though the plot is fairly by the numbers (as far as operas go), the audience becomes so invested in these characters that the comparatively uneventful climax becomes just as nail-biting as all the murder and suicide in Tosca and Il Trovatore combined.