Go inside this production of The Pearl Fishers with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
TIME and PLACE: 19th-century Ceylon
Fishermen gather and dance on the beach. Zurga interrupts the revels to remind everyone that the time has come for them to choose a king. The group chooses Zurga himself, and all declare their allegiance to him. Everyone is astonished at the arrival of Nadir, Zurga’s dear friend, who has returned unexpectedly after years of adventures. There is tension in the air. When he and Zurga are alone, the two recall their last trip together: They had reached the gates of Candi when they saw a beautiful woman at the temple of Brahma. Both of them fell in love with her at first sight, but they swore to forget her for the sake of their friendship. Now they swear again to remain friends. Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma, and his fellow priests bring a veiled young woman before Zurga. She is about to follow the old custom: Once a year, a veiled virgin is chosen to pray for the protection of the pearl fishers for a day and a night. If she remains faithful to the law and is seen by no one, her reward will be the most beautiful pearl the fishermen can find. If she disobeys, she will die. The young woman is shocked to recognize Nadir, and when he hears her voice, he believes it may well be that of Leïla, whom he and Zurga had promised each other to forget. Zurga notices Leïla’s sudden apprehension, but she recovers her composure. Everyone leaves for the temple except Nadir, who reflects on his beautiful memory of Leïla. He recalls that, even after he and Zurga had made their vow, he saw Leïla again and was captivated. Leïla lifts her voice in a prayer to Brahma, mesmerizing Nadir as he watches her from below. As she sings, Nadir realizes that it is Leïla and calls to her. Equally rapturous upon recognizing him, she continues to sing, but now her soaring melody is meant for Nadir alone.
Nourabad informs Leïla that the priests will be keeping watch, which will allow her to sleep peacefully. Leïla recalls the vow she made years before. She tells the priest that, when she was a child, a fugitive once came to her family’s hut begging for help. She hid him there, and in so doing saved his life. His enemies appeared, threatening to kill her, but she said nothing. When night fell, the man fled, but not before giving her his necklace. Nourabad reiterates that riches, glory, and happiness will all be hers if she keeps her vow. Alone with her thoughts, Leïla seems to sense Nadir’s presence. As in the past, she can feel him watching over her. She is ecstatic to hear him serenading her in the distance. When Nadir appears, Leïla becomes apprehensive, but Nadir, who confesses that he could not keep away from her, ardently declares his love. A storm approaches. They do not notice Nourabad watching them. Upon seeing the two together, the high priest rushes away in a rage. The lovers promise to see each other the next day. A shot is heard. Nourabad, the other priests, and the pearl fishers appear at the temple. Nadir escapes, only to be captured again. The crowd is about to strike him when Zurga rushes in and orders them to stop, since it is he alone who will decide the pair's fate. He whispers to the two that they should flee immediately. The furious Nourabad tears off Leïla’s veil, and Zurga instantly recognizes her. Now his concern turns to fury, and he proclaims that only misfortune will await both Leïla and Nadir. When the storm breaks out violently, the pearl fishers kneel and pray to Brahma for protection.
Scene 1. Alone in his tent, Zurga is unable to sleep, knowing that his former friend and the woman they both love must die at sunrise. He longs for them to forgive the rage that has overwhelmed him. When Leïla is brought in, she asserts her willingness to die if Zurga will spare Nadir’s life. Zurga refuses, and, in her anger and frustration, Leïla curses him, declaring that she will love Nadir forever. Nourabad announces that the executions must soon take place. Leïla is ready, but before she is taken away, she gives a fisherman her necklace and asks that it be taken to her mother when she is dead.
Scene 2. The pearl fishers dance wildly as they prepare for the deaths of Nadir and Leïla. The two are about to be executed when a sinister glow appears in the distance. Zurga rushes in, crying out that the encampment has been set on fire. All rush off to save their belongings, leaving Zurga, Leïla, and Nadir alone. Zurga – the fugitive whose life Leïla once saved – reveals that he lit the fire himself in order to save their lives. The lovers express their joy, but Zurga knows his own fate is sealed. Nadir hurries away with Leïla, leaving Zurga alone to face certain death.
When Ian Campbell, then San Diego Opera’s general and artistic director, asked me to direct a new production of The Pearl Fishers in 2004 with designs by Zandra Rhodes, little did I think that the production would have such an interesting life.
I approached the opera with some trepidation, as its pitfalls are well known. For example, there is little dramatic interest in a one-dimensional “Hail fellow, well met” scene that precedes one of the most famous duets in the operatic repertoire. And not only that – the plot is rather far-fetched. From the beginning, I set out to try to make the characters three-dimensional, so we needed to establish some conflict. Discussions with designer and choreographer prior to rehearsal provided many thoughts as to how this might be brought off, and in rehearsal we developed them further.
em further. It is the day when the village elects a new chief. Nourabad, the High Priest, represents the old order and is concerned that if Zurga is elected, he will be a liberal leader and village life will deteriorate. From the outset, therefore, there is “political” confrontation. And this is complicated by a layer of personal conflict. Zurga has always lived in the shadow of his friend Nadir, who has been absent from the village for some time after the atmosphere between them became intolerable when they both fell in love with a mysterious priestess in Candi. Without Nadir overshadowing him, Zurga has become popular with the people in his own right. But at the moment of his election, Nadir returns and Zurga’s moment of glory is mitigated as the focus shifts to the village’s favorite, and Zurga’s former friend. While at first there is awkwardness, there is finally some sort of reconciliation.
But reconciliation between the friends is short-lived. A strange twist of fate brings the priestess from the temple at Candi to preside over the pearl-diving that follows Zurga’s election. Since she is veiled, Zurga remains ignorant of the fact, but Nadir and Leïla recognize each other and the die is cast. In a paradise of wildly colorful palm trees and painted silk drops created by Zandra Rhodes, a story of sexual and political passion and betrayal is now played out, rushing headlong to an inevitable conclusion.
Dance has always been an important element in the French operatic repertoire. But if we were to emphasize the conflicts in this production, we knew it was essential to avoid dance in a classical and balletic form, which would work against the primitive society in which the opera takes place. John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance in San Diego, had choreographed a production of Aida for me, and his inventive and unusual style, which evoked Egypt for that opera, seemed ideal for this, too. Consequently, choreography is a significant part of this production and, where many interpretations shorten the extended finale to Act Two, John’s powerful and aggressive choreography allows the punishment of Leïla and Nadir to be played out in full.
Andrew Sinclair, Director
Quite a few operas have in common the fact that audiences’ enthusiasm for them has risen markedly in recent decades, thanks to the popularity of one particular portion of the score that has captured the public’s imagination. As a result of that renewed interest, the work becomes a great favorite internationally. In that category is The Pearl Fishers, composed by Georges Bizet a dozen years before he gave the world Carmen.
Whether in movies or television commercials, the number known worldwide simply as “the Pearl Fishers duet” has captivated listeners all over the world. Certainly when it comes to stirring, uplifting expressions of friendship, there are few moments in opera to surpass it. The excitement for opera lovers happens when their enthusiasm for the duet leads them to the opera that includes it. They then discover that The Pearl Fishers is a great deal more than that duet – the entire score is irresistible. It boasts breathtaking arias for tenor, soprano, and baritone, stupendous choral scenes, and brilliance from the orchestra that brings this Frenchman’s view of ancient Ceylon excitingly to life.
This opera has only a four-person cast, and each singer needs stellar vocalism and stage presence. I’m thrilled to welcome back four artists who are great friends of this company. Marina Rebeka (Leïla) has already exhibited her extraordinary vocal dexterity and theatrical flair in her Lyric portrayals of two signature roles, Violetta in La traviata and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. With The Pearl Fishers, Ryan Opera Center alumnus Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) – whose Duke of Mantua you enjoyed earlier this season in Lyric’s Rigoletto – is returning to the French repertoire, to which he has brought unique elegance in Lyric portrayals of Massenet’s Werther, Gounod’s Roméo, and Offenbach’s Hoffmann. Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), vividly remembered as our remarkable Don Giovanni and Onegin, triumphed alongside Matthew in the recent new Met production of The Pearl Fishers. Like Mariusz and Marina, Andrea Silvestrelli (Nourabad) is singing his first French role with us, after successes in Mozart, Bellini, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini.
During Sir Andrew Davis’s remarkable tenure as Lyric’s music director, it’s been one of our greatest joys to witness his conducting of French repertoire. From Les Troyens, Carmen, and Manon to Les Troyens, Faust, Werther, Don Quichotte, and Dialogues of the Carmelites, Andrew has revealed the glory of this repertoire. I’m delighted that he will now be able to add The Pearl Fishers, to which we can expect him to bring the thorough stylistic command that has made his French-opera performances here – as well as in other major houses worldwide – so memorable.
The Pearl Fishers production we’re presenting this season has enchanted audiences throughout the United States. Originating in 2004 at San Diego Opera, it marks the first time fashion icon Zandra Rhodes designed both sets and costumes for an opera production. For more than four decades, Zandra has enlivened the international fashion scene with her breathtaking gift for color and her truly astounding imagination. I’m very pleased that Lyric audiences will at last be able to experience her designs for Bizet’s opera. I know you’ll relish the spectacular sights and sounds of The Pearl Fishers!
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There is a delightful photograph in the archives of the Metropolitan Opera revealing tenor Enrico Caruso, soprano Frieda Hempel, and baritone Giuseppe De Luca costumed for the 1916 Met premiere of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). It’s a quaintly old-fashioned shot. A modestly veiled Hempel looks every inch a sturdy little hausfrau, while the men are decorously swathed in sumptuous fabrics that virtually cover them from head to toe. The opera ran three performances and, according to the Evening Sun, “brought the house down.” Then it vanished from the Met for a full century.
That was a typical course for Pêcheurs, a work that has consistently delighted audiences, confounded critics, and only hovered on the fringes of the repertory. – until the twenty-first century, when it became a bona-fide hit.
In 1863, the 24-year-old Bizet was an unproven commodity. His defining masterpiece, Carmen, was 12 years in the future. Bizet had demonstrated unusual promise, however, and at the tender age of 18, while still a student at the Conservatoire de Paris, his one-act opera Le docteur Miracle had won an important competition. The following year, the young composer was awarded the esteemed Prix de Rome and spent three years honing his craft in Italy.
The prestige earned by the Prix de Rome was ultimately to provide Bizet an entrée into the Parisian operatic scene. Léon Carvalho, the impresario of the Théâtre-Lyrique, had been conferred a sizable endowment by Count Alexandre ColonnaWalewski. Count Walewski’s only stipulation was that Carvalho was to stage a new work by a Prix de Rome winner each season. Carvalho offered Bizet a libretto; a tale of a love triangle in colorful Ceylon entitled Les pêcheurs de perles.
The libretto had been hastily cobbled together by the team of Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, neither of whom was particularly enthusiastic about the assignment. For inspiration, the pair turned to a recently published novel by Octave Sachot, L’île de Ceylan et ses curiosités naturelles, and also lifted several elements from Spontini’s 1807 opera La Vestale. The result was an admittedly contrived bit of sentimental exotica, but was deemed serviceable enough for the task, especially when the composer seemed to them little more than a boy.
Les pêcheurs de perles premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique on September 30, 1863. Audiences took to Bizet’s music immediately, and the opera was enthusiastically applauded. Critical consensus was far less kind. Bizet was accused of having fallen under the influence of the “new Italian style” during his sojourn in Italy. Worse, he was accused of “Wagnerism” – a popular epithet hurled at young composers at the time, and a questionable one. Beyond the French version of Tannhäuser that played at the Opéra in 1861 and a handful of instrumental concerts, Paris had been given precious little opportunity to experience Wagner’s music.
One of the few complimentary voices was a markedly interesting one; Hector Berlioz, who was notorious for decrying the “mediocrities” foisted upon the French public by fledgling composers, found the work “full of fire” and wrote, “The score does M. Bizet the greatest honor.” Otherwise, the critical reception can be summed up in the words of Benjamin Jouvin of Le Figaro, who in one of the most famous snarky reviews in opera history opined, “There were neither fisherman in the libretto, nor pearls in the music.”
Although the failure of Pêcheurs is recounted in many a reference book, the reasons behind it remain a trifle murky, particularly given the enormous popularity the work has gained in the current century. The fault is generally laid at the feet of the libretto, and indeed it is dramatically thin stuff. In later years, Eugène Cormon admitted that had he realized what a melodic genius he was writing for, he would have made better work of it. That doesn’t really answer the question, however – many beloved works have prevailed in spite of weak dramaturgy.
Much of the problem probably lay in the fact that French theatrical music was approaching a conceptual crossroad at that time. French opera had primarily existed in two forms, grand opéra and opéra comique, both of which were becoming mired in their own conventions. There was great devotion to tradition, but also a gnawing awareness that French opera was seriously in need of a reboot. The rigid structural formulas of grand opéra were beginning to lose their appeal, which would continue to wane in ensuing decades. Pêcheurs fielded the easy accessibility of opéra comique, but it was through-composed, without the spoken dialogue that was a defining feature of the genre. Moreover, Bizet’s orchestrations had a new density and lushness – a far cry from the delicate confections of Boieldieu or Auber, two masters of the comique form. Les pêcheurs de perles was an opéra lyrique, a newly emerging hybrid to be further developed by Ambroise Thomas and Jules Massenet.
Moreover, some among the press had decried what was seen as a novice composer’s presumption before hearing a note of the music. “For the nearly four months since this work was announced, it has been spoken of as an event,” complained L’Europe artiste, “its beauties are extolled; these are discussed neither more nor less than if this had been the work of a proven master.” Bizet was also rebuked for taking a bow at the premiere. “This may be the custom in Italy,” sneered Gustave Bertrand, “but we are in France, and M. Bizet is French. We here do not permit such exhibitions except for an absolutely exceptional success.” Even his appearance was raked over the coals, as no fewer than five newspapers reported that he tastelessly sported a grey paletot (topcoat) over his black suit. One senses a critical community whose slavish adherence to tradition felt threatened by a young upstart who was bucking the system.
Pêcheurs ran for 18 performances and was never mounted again in Bizet’s short lifetime. The composer carefully adopted a withering public stance on his youthful creation, calling it a work of no value. When caught off guard, however, he could wistfully acknowledge being “pleased to have been able to write a few of its passages at so young an age.”
The opera was finally revived at La Scala in 1886. It progressed through many of the world’s musical centers in the next few years, no doubt aided by the recent popularity of Carmen (1875). Sadly, the autograph score had been lost, which led to considerable tampering. Milan employed the services of a second-rank French composer, Benjamin Godard, to write a grand trio to conclude the piece (an obvious appropriation from Gounod’s Faust). Various journeymen created alternate endings, including one in which Leïla commits suicide! Fortunately, restorative work began in the 1970s; musicologist Arthur Hammond worked from Bizet’s piano score, and later, conductor Brad Cohen fortuitously secured the original conductor’s score from 1863. Pêcheurs achieved a reasonable European presence throughout the twentieth century at the Comique, and in Vienna and Berlin. American mountings were exceedingly rare, though Lyric presented the opera in 1966 and 1998, and New York City Opera gave it a go.
After 2001, a fascinating trend emerged. Pêcheurs began popping up on season brochures with a frequency that would have astonished Bizet himself, and has probably clocked in more North American performances in the last twenty years than in the entire preceding century. Lyric revived it 2008, and in 2015 even the Met joined the party with a new production. What, one might query, accounts for the opera’s extraordinary reversal of fortune?
Some credit is due to the delectable production by iconic fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes, which Lyric is presenting this season. First mounted in San Diego in 2004, Rhodes’s kaleidoscopic, exotic imagery based upon Sri Lankan art and architecture has delighted audiences at many companies, and was dubbed the “essential production” of the piece by Opera News.
But then, opera production has evolved to meet contemporary tastes. There is no question that visual concerns have come to rival musical matters in importance, and singers are expected to look their roles. One wonders what Caruso, Hempel, and De Luca would have thought about the parade of shirtless Zurgas and provocatively clad Leïlas that have graced contemporary stages. In a society obsessed with fitness and physical beauty, Pêcheurs seems an ideal vehicle; that the work’s popular ascension has coincided with the “barihunk” phenomenon is no mere coincidence.
There is a cyclical nature to musical interest. In the early twentieth century, Baroque opera and the bulk of bel canto was largely swept aside by public preference for the grittier appeal of Puccini and the verismo school. The delicately perfumed French repertory barely stood a chance. But just as those repertoires have subsequently re-emerged, French opera has begun to win back listeners. After decades of compositional dissonance, and innovations of the minimalist school, audiences have understandably become eager to be caressed with melody again. Who better to turn to than Bizet, that master tunesmith who gave us Carmen?
It’s difficult to imagine a score more luxuriously melodic than Pêcheurs. The tenor/baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” remains one of the most beautiful blendings of male voices ever composed (Bizet thought so, too – the piece was even sung at his funeral). The repeats of the duet’s initial theme that conclude it and later appear in the opera’s final moments were not in Bizet’s original score – that is a matter of tradition – but in any form, it has long been a concert favorite. Interest in the opera has been fanned by the duet’s entry into pop culture, significantly after its use in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli to underscore the devotion between two ill-fated soldiers. The often overlooked Leïla/Zurga duet in Act Three is also a marvelous interlude of music drama when interpreters approach it seriously. Then we have the ineffable lyricism of Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore,” the shimmering coloratura flourishes of Leïla’s “Comme autrefois,” and Zurga’s remorseful “O Nadir, tendre ami” – not to mention splendid choral opportunities.
Debates over Les pêcheurs de perles are endless. Some operagoers regard the piece as a guilty pleasure, and there are those who disregard it entirely (though one suspects even they hum along when nobody’s looking). But for those of us who value romance, and yearn to be spirited away on an escapist journey of glorious melody, Bizet’s late bloomer is just the ticket.
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for Playbill, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, Chicago on the Aisle, and the publications of Houston Grand Opera, the Ravinia Festival, and the Kennedy Center