The Pearl Fishers
Opera in three acts.
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré
Set in legendary Ceylon, longtime friends Nadir and Zurga are reunited. Their friendship faltered when they shared the same forbidden love for the priestess Leila—a love they swore to renounce.
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March | 05 - March | 19
With Translations In:
Estimated Run Time:
2 Hours, 31 Minutes
Cast & Staff
Mar 5, 8, 10, 13, 16, 19
Amid great festivity, the pearl fishers of Ceylon prepare to choose a chief. Just as Zurga is chosen to lead them, his old friend, Nadir arrives after a long absence. Together, the two reminisce about the night they encountered a mysterious woman of extraordinary beauty at the gates of Kandy. Both immediately fell in love with her, but renounced their intense rivalry for her in order to save their friendship.
A veiled woman approaches. Léïla has been chosen as the consecrated virgin whose duty it is to sing and protect the fishermen while they are at sea, but remaining inviolate. She is presented by the High Priest Nourabad and acclaimed by the pearl fishers as she swears an oath of obedience. But before she is led away to the temple, near where she will keep her sacred vigil, she and Nadir recognize each other. Nadir, despite his assurance to Zurga to the contrary, has never ceased loving her. When Léïla comes out of the temple, he lets her know he is nearby and will protect her.
Nourabad reminds Léïla of her sacred vows, warning her to remain faithful to her oath on pain of death. She assures him that she never breaks a promise. She tells the old man that she once refused to reveal the hiding place of a fugitive, even though his pursuers threatened to kill her. The fugitive gave her the necklace she always wears as proof of her fidelity.
However, later that evening, she and Nadir meet, declaring their love. Nourabad has witnessed their encounter and calls a curse down on them both, as a storm approaches. Nadir is captured by the temple guards and charged with sacrilege. Zurga, as tribal chief, claims his right to settle the case and decides to pardon them in deference to his friendship with Nadir. But Nourabad tears the veil from Léïla’s face, and Zurga recognizes Léïla as the woman he and Nadir both loved. Revoking his pardon, Zurga swears to have his revenge.
Zurga regrets his condemnation of Nadir, recalling their friendship. Léïla appears to beg for Nadir’s life, confessing she is willing to die for him if necessary. Her devotion to Nadir stirs Zurga’s jealousy and renews his intention to have Nadir killed, for which Léïla curses Zurga. Before leaving to meet her fate, she asks a fisherman one final favor: that her necklace be sent to her mother in the event of her death. Zurga recognizes the necklace and hastens after her to the place of execution.
A funeral pyre has been erected, around which the people dance in murderous frenzy. Léïla is brought forward to meet her fate with Nadir. But Zurga rushes in with the news that the camp is on fire. As the fishermen run to fight the flames, Zurga confesses to Léïla and Nadir that he set the fire as a diversion, to allow him to free the lovers. He reveals that he was the fugitive who gave the necklace to Léïla when she saved his life long ago. He frees them and remains behind as Léïla and Nadir escape.
Bizet’s Exotic Gem
Georges Bizet burst on to the colorful Parisian operatic scene with Les Pêcheurs de perles in 1863, just three weeks shy of his twenty-fifth birthday. “The rascal! Is it even lawful to be twenty-five?” wistfully quipped one venerable critic. Talent, of course, does not recognize the signposts of age. As a piano-prodigy-turned-composer, Bizet already had a substantial portfolio: prizes from the Conservatoire, the Grand Prix de Rome, an operetta called Le Docteur Miracle which had achieved first place in a contest sponsored by Jacques Offenbach, piano pieces, cantatas, sacred music. On the list goes. And yet, Les Pêcheurs de perles was at best a succès d’estime. After its initial run at a house called the Théâtre Lyrique, managers and singers promptly forgot about it. If that seems surprising today, at least Bizet was in good company. The premiere of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (in abbreviated form) at the same theatre just a few weeks later also fell flat.
Berlioz was a hard sell to his French contemporaries and so was Bizet. Critics and audiences were challenged by the compositional and dramatic audacities of both composers. Even Carmen received a tepid response from Parisian audiences at its premiere in 1875. Bizet’s premature death (he was only 36 years old) as his masterpiece limped along at the box office makes for one of the more poignant life sagas among nineteenth century composers. For, ironically enough, shortly afterwards Carmen triumphed on foreign stages. Persuaded of the work’s viability after all, Parisian audiences followed suit with their approval after 1883. In light of Bizet’s obvious brilliance, critics and impresarios now began to wonder about his other operas, all of them languishing in obscurity. There was La Jolie Fille de Perthe, Djamileh . . . and Les Pêcheurs de perles.
Wielding scissors and paste to correct perceived deficiencies in the score, the impresario Léon Carvalho (who had contracted the work in 1863) brought Pêcheurs to the stage again in 1889, this time at the Opéra Comique. The opera may not have been quite the same as Bizet intended in all of its details, but audiences warmed to it. All of this seems to beg the question: without Carmen, would Pêcheurs be completely forgotten today? It is hard to say, but it is also worth noting that Bizet’s other youthful operas have never gained as much favor. For example, the full-blooded romanticism of a Walter Scott literary model may have suited Donizetti’s muse earlier in the century in Lucia di Lammermoor, but Bizet was less vibrant in La Jolie Fille de Perthe (where the tenor believes his beloved unfaithful and the soprano sings a mad scene, just as in Donizetti’s opera).
So what is it about Pêcheurs that has made it stand out in Bizet’s oeuvre, indeed catapulted it to the international repertory after 1950? Well, perhaps first and foremost, there is that tenor-baritone duet. Opera lovers have long reveled in “Au fond du temple saint,” with its beautiful melody that unfolds while Nadir and Zurga relive the experience of beholding the exquisite priestess Léïla for the first time. It returns several times in the opera with haunting effect. “Au fond du temple saint” was just the sort of melody that Charles Gounod, a mentor to the young Bizet, might have penned, where the mildy sanctimonious blends with the subtly alluring (by coincidence, the first five notes are the same as the Gregorian chant Dies Irae). Transported by a celestial vision, the title character in Gounod’s Mireille sings of “divine extase,” just as does Marguerite at the end of Faust in her own way. The gist of that expression seems just right for Bizet’s similar music, though articulated from the point of view of male characters. Remarkably, some contemporary critics held that both composers lacked skill as melodists!
But the success of Pêcheurs cannot be reduced to a single tune. Bizet exhibits remarkable skill at creating an oriental reverie, where the characters are often perceived in dreamlike states, or transported into the past, and where, in turn, the entire orient becomes a dreamlike space for the listener. In his tender Act 1 romance “Je crois entendre encore” Nadir seems to float in a state of languid suspended animation as he recalls the voice of his beloved in the night. The first act ends in barcarolle-like tranquility as Léïla, perched high on the sacred rock, enchants her compatriots (and us) with magical coloratura that seems to emerge from another world. Much of the choral music embodies exotic distance, alternately savage and decorative—both stereotypes of the East manufactured by the nineteenth-century European mind.
For all of its local color, however, the plot is the archetypal Western one of the Vestal Virgin who breaks her vows of chastity, as in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. The wrinkle added to the archetype is the friendship—and jealousy—between two males. These conflicting emotions are brought to the fore in Zurga’s very fine recitative and aria at the beginning of the third act. He cuts an impressive dramatic figure in the act, and all the more in the conclusion as originally conceived by Bizet before Carvalho’s posthumous application of scissors and paste. Sarasota Opera performs the version of the premiere where Zurga is left alone on stage to wrestle with his inner torment and meet his fate, while the lovers set free by him are heard in the distance. An isolated protagonist at the final curtain produces a stark dramatic effect: the dramatic genius of Carmen seems to hover near.