September 16, 2012

The Pearl Fishers: an apprentice composer learns from two masters

De Luca, Hempel and Caruso in "The Pearl Fishers" in 1916
Bizet's romantic opera The Pearl Fishers is a work that can be appreciated simply on the merits of the musical riches it contains. Any employee of an opera company who deals with the public as I do quickly learns that casual opera lovers are big fans of melody. Yessiree, as a rule, audiences like their operas dripping with tunes: romantic melodies, erotic melodies, lively melodies, catchy melodies, passionate melo---

Okay, you get the idea. If this describes your feelings on the subject, let me hasten to assure you: you are going to love, love, love The Pearl Fishers. This opera is to memorable melodies what the buffet at your local Golden Corral restaurant is to meaty entrees. Wow! Pot roast, roast chicken, steak, fried chicken, ham, meatloaf; all juicy and fresh from the oven. So it is with Pearl Fishers. The famous tenor-baritone duet "Au fond de temple sant", is just one example.

Now, I like a good tune as much as the next guy, don't get me wrong -- I've even composed a few myself. But for me and, I suspect, others with a wide knowledge of opera, this piece is truly fascinating for two other aspects, namely:
  • observing how Bizet, a careful student both of opera history and contemporary operas, implemented devices and effects learned from Bellini and Verdi (among others); and
  • identifying other effects which not only would re-appear with greater impact in Bizet's final opera Carmen, but would also be seen in future works of other masters.
In this post, I'll point out traces of Bellini and Verdi in Bizet's opera; next week, we'll examine passages that foreshadow future masterpieces.

There are parallels in the music world to one of the ways in which apprentice painters learn their craft in the art world. We've all seen young artists sitting next to a painting by Matisse or Velasquez with a blank canvas, brush in hand, copying it as a techincal exercise. Composers have had a similar practice throughout music history. For example, many of Mozart's boyhood works, brilliant as they may be, are basically clones of the music of Johann Christian Bach, the master he most admired.

Jenny Lind as Norma
Thus, we shouldn't be surprised to see Bizet carefully adopting practices of the giants from the opera world. Of course, Pearl Fishers' premise of a priestess unable to resist sexual temptation had already been explored in Spontini's La Vestale (1807) and Bellini's immortal bel canto masterpiece Norma (1831).  If you know and love Norma, you should pay particular attention to the Act I finale of The Pearl Fishers. Leila, newly installed as priestess of the fishing community in ancient Ceylon, begins her sacred duties of chanting, singing and praying to "Lord Brahma" in the aria "Dans le ciel sans voile". After a short solo passage, the assembled natives, all gathered to listen to their new spiritual leader, begin a lilting choral passage: "Ah, chante, chante encore!" as Leila spins wordless trills, scales and arpeggios above them, meant to depict ecstatic religious chanting.

Sound familiar, opera bunnies? It should; it's exactly what happens in Norma's famous aria "Casta diva": a solo passage followed by wordless coloratura with the murmuring choral backdrop of religious followers. Even the use of compound meters is similar. "Casta diva" is in a luxuriously unhurried 12/8, while Bizet chooses 6/8 for "Dans le ciel". While Bizet's tempo is slightly faster, the alternating quarter and eighth notes for both choral parts result in a similar rocking rhythmic effect.

Verdi's Il Trovatore premiered in 1853, just a decade before The Pearl Fishers. Manrico, Verdi's doomed protagonist (but then, pretty much everyone is Trovatore is doomed!), sings two notable off-stage serenades. His first entrance in Act I is preceded by the melancholy "Deserto sulla terra", in 3/8 time. Then in Act IV, awaiting execution from his prison cell, an unseen Manrico sings his farewells to Leonora as part of the famous "Miserere". While the meter is now common time, Manrico's solo is in triplet eighths, resembling 12/8 time. As he sings, Leonora, alone onstage, sings fragmentary lines expressing both her dismay and her love.

Of course, the romance of the off-stage tenor serenade was to become a cliche in time, with Turiddu (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Alfred (Die Fledermaus), among others, getting in on the act. But the idea was still fairly fresh when Bizet was creating the score to his opera. I have no problem in branding Nadir's Act II chanson "De mon amie" as an homage to Manrico. Nadir is climbing up to Leila's domain overlooking the sea on his way to an illicit rendezvous. (See a future blog post positing my theory about the "Sigiriya"on Sri Lanka being the geological inspiration for Leila's temple!) Like "Deserto sulla terra", Nadir is declaring his love for a woman who isn't actually available to him, strictly speaking (Leonora lives in a kingdom with which Manrico's army is at war). As in the "Miserere", Nadir's solo is in 12/8 time and is punctuated with Leila's angst-ridden commentary.

Il Trovatore was a big hit, and already a repertory staple by 1863; you can't really blame the young Bizet for wanting to capitalize on elements already proven to be successful. At the same time, it's easy to see that true greatness, the greatness yet to come in Carmen, required that he find his own way; his own voice; the willingness to write a new kind of music drama.

One more example of Verdi's influence is noticeable, drawing an effect from Un ballo in maschera, which was still a "new work" in 1863, having debuted in 1859. Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon, who collaborated on the libretto for Pearl Fishers, clearly attempted to duplicate the pathos of the great baritone aria "Eri tu" from Ballo in Zurga's solo "L'orage est calmé". In both numbers, the baritone expresses anger and grief at the prospect of having to execute his best friend friend, a friend whose inappropriate love affair represents a betrayal of their friendship. The differences in the dramatic situation are insignificant. While Bizet was not yet ready to produce a piece of music as profoundly touching as "Eri tu", I for one find "L'orage est calmé" to be a very satisfying aria, one which deserves to be more popular. It's a very strong moment in the opera.

Oh yeah - I should mention another famous example of an off-stage tenor solo: Don Jose's joyful "Halte là! qui va là" in Act II of Carmen.

And speaking of Carmen, check back next week; I've put  The Pearl Fishers under the magnifying glass, looking for musical and dramatic elements pointing the way not only to Carmen, but to other "post-Pearl" works, including Aida, Les contes d'Hoffmann, and even Turandot. This stuff is interesting!

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

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