If you had been in the audience at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on the night of September 30, 1863, you would have heard the première of the first full-length opera by a 24-year-old composer testing the dangerous waters of the French musical world. The work was Les Pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), the composer, Georges Bizet (1838-1875).
On that fall night in 1863, an opera on the subject of Carmen was a gleam in nobody's eye, and Bizet, like all young French opera composers, was vulnerable to the caprices, snobbery and, especially, the prejudices of the Parisian opera directors, public, and critics, as well as the bureaucracy. The nature of operas and the theaters that produced them were largely regulated by censorship and subsidies, and solidified by tradition. From the government on down, Paris was fixated on "genre": operatic compositions were to be either grand opéra (through-composed works of a serious nature and without spoken dialogue) or opéra-comique (comic or semi-comic works with a happy ending and spoken dialogue). Cross-fertilization was considered heretical.
In addition, Paris was a Mecca not only for French composers, but for outlanders. Arguably the most prestigious opera center in Europe, it drew Rossini, an Italian, and Meyerbeer, a German, to put down roots. Even Wagner and Verdi gravitated to The City of Light. There was only one Paris, and Paris knew it.
Given this challenging musical environment, the very fact that young Bizet was asked to write a full-length operatic work was remarkable. He was the lucky beneficiary of a governmental decree of 1862 stipulating that the Théâtre Lyrique (a venue for what might now be called "experimental" works) should produce at least one three-act opera by a Prix de Rome winner whose work had not yet been performed in Paris. Bizet was a perfect candidate.
Armed with a government subsidy of 100,000 francs, Léon Carvalho, the general director of the Théâtre Lyrique, commissioned Les Pêcheurs de perles from Bizet and the librettist team of Eugène Cormon (pseudonym of Pierre-Etienne Piestre) and Michel Carré. Their finished libretto was submitted to the censorship office for approval in early August 1863 (which left Bizet only seven weeks until the scheduled première to write the opera).
This libretto, however, left something to be desired. Even Cormon reportedly declared that, if they had known how gifted Bizet was, they never would have saddled him with "cet ours infâme" ("that wretched bear"). Andrew Sinclair, director of New York City Opera's new production of The Pearl Fishers, finds the libretto's challenges invigorating. "I've found there is much to be discovered in the libretto despite its twists and turns," he said, "or perhaps because of them."
The central triangle of The Pearl Fishers‹the two Sri Lankan fisherman, Nadir (tenor) and Zurga (baritone), both in love with the chaste priestess, Leïla (soprano)‹is compelling enough. But the faux-exotic settings, so in vogue in 19th-century French music, painting and poetry, can seem dated, as well as the politically incorrect primitivism of the religious dicta and rituals that govern the fate of the three main characters. In addition, coincidences abound; characters "suddenly" appear.
But Bizet's glorious music convinces. In Act I, the composer captures both the love of the two men for Leïla and their own deeply felt friendship in "Au fond du temple saint," one of the greatest duets in all of opera. Beloved of record collectors, and immortalized by generation after generation of tenor-baritone duos from Caruso and Ancona, to Bjoerling and Merrill, to Domingo and Milnes, it transcends operatic convention. Bizet made the theme of this duet the only recurring musical motif in the opera, used to recall the friendship between Nadir and Zurga, sundered by their love for the same woman. When it is heard for the final time, at the end of the opera, just before Zurga makes the ultimate sacrifice so that the lovers Leïla and Nadir may flee, the effect is almost unbearably touching.
Another musical highlight of Pêcheurs is Nadir's beautiful barcarolle, "Je crois entendre encore." With sonority and rhythm reminiscent of the slow movement of Bizet's youthful Symphony in C (1855), this haunting aria sublimely captures Nadir's recollection of his first vision of Leïla, and has remained a tenor favorite from Caruso to Alagna.
Yet, dramatically speaking, it is Zurga who holds the key to Pêcheurs. His Act III aria eloquently maps out the conflicting demands of love, loyalty, and leadership that force him to make the painful choices that drive the opera's plot. "In the great duet with Leïla that follows," noted Sinclair, "Zurga explodes in a paroxysm of repression, hate, and self-loathing." In other words, we are treated to a foretaste of the ground-breaking final scene of Carmen. "This is great music‹and great drama," said Sinclair.
To have expected the public, or even the critics, to grasp even some of these virtues on first hearing might have been unrealistic, and, indeed, Les Pêcheurs de perles simply left Paris puzzled. As Hervé Bernard wrote in The Keys to French Opera in the Nineteenth Century, "Bizet… faced major difficulties: his style, rich in color and harmonies, was disconcerting, and his aesthetic vision… resulted in an 'operatic poetry' and depth of expression that the French were slow to understand." The more positive and charitable critics recognized Bizet's talent, but were unable to categorize him or his new work. One even called the young composer a Wagnerian‹a remark we find amusing today. Another criticized Bizet for taking a bow after the performance!
Hector Berlioz, renowned as a critic as well as a composer, was the only writer who grasped the implications of what he had heard. He wrote in the Journal des Débats, "The score of Les Pêcheurs de perles does Monsieur Bizet the greatest honor." Poor Berlioz would face his own hailstorm of criticism the following month, when the Théâtre Lyrique daringly produced Part II of his titanic Les Troyens. Any further support he might have given the young Bizet and his Pêcheurs was then aborted. And ironically, Berlioz's magnum opus sapped box office receipts at the Théâtre Lyrique, causing Les Pêcheurs de perles to be withdrawn after 18 performances.
It was never again to be performed again in Bizet's brief lifetime, though the great duet "Au fond du temple saint" was sung to the text of "Pie Jesu" at his untimely funeral in 1875. It took Bizet's death at the age of 37, and the painful birth of his posthumous masterpiece, Carmen, to reveal his earlier work as a "Pearl" of great price.
Michael Philip Davis, Resident Stage Director of the California Opera Association, writes frequently on operatic subjects. He was recently tenor soloist in the concert "Regina Resnik Presents The American Jewish Composers in Classical Song," soon to be broadcast on CUNY-TV, Channel 75.