Opéra comique is a specific form of theatrical entertainment. It was firmly established during the 18th century, and by the time Bizet began composing it had deeply entrenched traditions and specific audience expectations. It was light entertainment (it was not Carmen). It consisted of consistently charming music, a bit of comedy, a little romance, a confusion or obstacle that threatened the romance, and a happy ending that indicated an impending fairy-tale marriage. American musical theatre had much the same expectations until West Side Story, which also did poorly at the box office in its initial run, though not nearly so bad as Carmen.Bizet was among those who thought opéra comique needed reform. In the opinions of these young librettists and composers, opéra comique had become calcified, predictable, boring. Carmen was meant to shake up that complaisant world, inject it with excitement, bring opéra comique into the 19th century. The 19th century wasn’t quite ready. The problems with The Pearl Fishers were subtler than those of Carmen, and there were mixed opinions about Pearl Fishers. All of Paris was unanimous in their abhorrence of Carmen, but for Pearl Fishers, audiences thought one thing, musicians another, and it seems that all but one reviewer disagreed with both of them. Berlioz was the dissenting voice; he praised Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.
The Pearl Fishers was first conceived as an opéra comique, which meant spoken dialogue, charming music, a chaste romance, and a happy ending. The thing that would set this opera apart was the exotic setting (ultimately Ceylon). Conceived as a perfumed island paradise where palm trees swayed beneath a starry sky surrounded by an azure sea, it was to be the very opposite of naturalism. The obstacle to the marriage of the soprano and tenor was supposed to be easily overcome: no undue suffering. A lot of this changed, perhaps because of the development of the libretto in Act III, when the librettists decided to set fire to the village. For any thinking person, this would result in the death of the baritone, who set the fire when the whole village was already thirsting for blood. This changed a lot, but not quite everything. There were still palm trees and starry skies, and a chaste romance, but now the music had to embody an execution and a rescue.
Bizet rose to the challenge with choral music of vengeful menace, fury heightened by frenzy. This was not an ending that anyone at the time would have expected, and Bizet prepared this last chorus with a gradually increasing sense of anger and peril. Thus the critics’ accusation of being under the influence of Verdi, whose operas were seen as too violent, too tragic. Also unwelcome was the new music of Wagner, which was too thick, too complex, too powerful, not cheerful, too long. Tannhäuser caused a riot at its Paris premiere in 1861, and Bizet had just gone on public record as lauding Wagner as a composer whose work should be known and understood.
Before The Pearl Fishers opened, Bizet decided (I haven’t found his reason yet) to replace the expected spoken dialogue with sung recitative. This gave the opera a sense of through-composed music and blurred the edges of discrete musical numbers, which may have led some to think of Wagner; however, more than anything Bizet composed in The Pearl Fishers, I suspect his praise for the despised Wagner is what garnered so much sharp criticism. Still, despite the fact that the opera was no longer an opéra comique, it still retained much of that scent and atmosphere, and perhaps threw the reviewers into confusion. The public was not confused; they approved enthusiastically and called Bizet to the stage for a bow (which the critics didn’t approve of at all). The opera ran for eighteen performances (perfectly respectable), alternating with The Marriage of Figaro.
So much for the opening, now on to a social consideration…
Stay tuned for the final installment of Larry’s thoughts on Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers