Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part III

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).

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part II

Place_du_Chatelet

The Théâtre Lyrique (centre right), Paris, where The Pearl Fishers received its first performance on September 30, 1863.

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

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers: Part I

Georges BizetThis 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.