This might seem a bit random, but as I have been reading about the life of Bizet and the creation, premiere, and reception of his first full-length opera, it has occurred to me that there are a few stumbling blocks that could compromise the modern viewer’s full enjoyment of this opera. If some of these confusions could be untangled in advance, they might allow audience members to enter more fully into the 19th-century esthetic, action, and music of The Pearl Fishersand enhance the enjoyment of that experience.
Bizet’s musical legacy hinges on one opera: Carmen. Composers will tell you that Carmen is expertly, even brilliantly constructed, and musicologists will point out that it is the very first of a new kind of opera (referred to as naturalism, which was spawned by literary realism in France, and called verismo in Italy), and it led to Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, La bohème, Louise, and many, many others, arguably even Tosca. This approach began in 1840s France as a literary movement that championed the depiction of life as led by ordinary people. It accepted and illustrated the idea that heredity and social conditions, such as material and emotional want, have real impact on character and the decisions one makes because life itself limits and directs one’s choices. Balzac, Zola, Murger, and Mérimée (Mérimée wrote the 1845 novella on which Bizet based his 1875 Carmen) pioneered this new way of looking at society and individuals. They turned their attention away from palaces, castles, and knights in shining armor toward slums, brothels, and even Spanish Gypsies. That Bizet’s reputation entered the 20th century based on only one opera is due to the very constraints that were illustrated in the novels that began this movement.
Bizet lived in Paris during the mid 19th century. France was still experiencing sporadic, even violent, political unrest that had been unleashed by the French revolution. He would fight in the Franco-Prussian War, when the Prussians laid siege, shelled, starved, and occupied Paris. He would gather up his new wife, Geneviève Halévy, and retreat to the countryside during the Paris Commune, when angry dissidents took over the seat of French government and set fire to major parts of the city. Art does not thrive in times like these, times of financial collapse and general upheaval. In these conditions, costly art forms flounder and opera companies die.
Bizet began something in the neighborhood of thirty operas during the course of his 36 years (he composed his first staged work at age 18 and his last at age 35), but almost all of them were abandoned. Most were thwarted by the financial problems of the companies that had begun these projects. Several of the operas that were completed did not make it to an opening because of the financial insecurity of the producing companies. The Théâtre Lyrique, the one opera company in Paris that produced the work of up-and-coming composers, closed forever in these years, and the Opéra-Comique was shut down immediately after Carmen. In truth, it was the enormous box office failure of Carmen that brought about the demise of the Opéra-Comique, and the reasons for this failure also apply, to some extent, to the poor reception of The Pearl Fishers by the French press.
Stay tuned for Part II, where Larry discusses the specific form of theatrical entertainment known as Opéra-Comique and how it affected opera audience expectations during Bizet’s time.