Another Pearl Fishers challenge for a California audience is an absence of cultural awareness. Hindu thought and religious practice was a complete unknown for these Parisian librettists. Today, Indians chuckle throughout this opera at such a brilliant display of perfect ignorance. Clearly, their goal was not an accurate picture of a distant culture. The opera was modeled on Spontini’s La vestale (ancient Rome!) and Bellini’s Norma (ancient Gaul!!). The Pearl Fishers was not exactly a National Geographic special. The goal was to create an idealized exotic atmosphere, put the trouble in paradise, and invent an escape route, much like Hollywood films of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s (you get the drift). This approach is nothing new.
Now we come to the best-friends-forever relationship between Zurga and Nadir. In the 19th century, close, affectionate, friendships were highly prized, and especially so as friendships between the sexes were virtually impossible. During the course of the 20th century, especially in this country, such warm, platonic friendships have all but disappeared. We have a completely different perception of friendship, and our closest friends would more than likely appear as mere acquaintances to young adults of the 19th century. Their friendship, from our vantage point, displayed surprisingly effusive language and affection.
Last of all we come to Leïla: a woman with a past, a woman with a secret, a woman in love. What could be more intriguing than this lovely, veiled woman, the 19th-century equivalent of a vestal virgin? Every man in the village, and the women, too, must have been wondering what she looked like, where she came from, what made her special, and whether or not she could keep the dark forces of evil at bay while they were swimming with sharks. Members of the Jockey Club must have been wondering at least some of the same things from their box seats in the Théâtre Lyrique.
Leïla is listed in the score as a priestess. There are Hindu priests and priestesses, past and present, but I wonder if any of them tried to keep malevolent spirits at bay through song. However, in an idealized island paradise imagined by 19th-century Parisians, this couldn’t have been much of a stretch.
The trick to enjoy The Pearl Fishers is to enter into this lush tropical scene with the hope of hearing one of the most lavishly beautiful scores in the repertoire. Number after number is simply beautiful, deliciously beautiful, enchantingly beautiful. The choruses are in turn lively, dreamy, overwhelming, distant, and spectacular, with rich harmonies and effective rhythms. The duets are immortal, and the arias are stunning.
So, if you can forgive the cultural ignorance of the librettists and go with the flow of the plot, you might find that The Pearl Fishers is one of the most rewarding evenings you have ever spent in a theatre. We are doing all in our power to ensure that experience for you, and we do have quite a bit of experience at succeeding with The Pearl Fishers.
Thanks to Kirti Venkatasawmy (my French tutor) and Vijay Vaidyanathan (for his insightful comments).