September 23, 2012

The Pearl Fishers: pearly seeds of opera's future

Last week's post about Bizet's romantic Pearl Fishers centered on elements in the opera that reflect operas from the past by Verdi (Il Trovatore and Un Ballo in Maschera) and Bellini (Norma). But Bizet's drama contains more than just echoes of opera's past; there are also fascinating hints of devices and scenarios that would re-appear in later works, particularly in the composer's masterwork, Carmen. Let's look for those moments in the score - it's sort of like a musical Easter egg hunt! (I said "sort of"...)

The opera begins with an extended opening number for the chorus designed to give the audience a sense of place (the exotic island of Ceylon) and time (um, a long long long long time ago...). Actually, ancient Ceylon (or "Sri Lanka" as it's called today) was an amazingly advanced civilization, one that could boast of having the first dedicated hospital in global history in the 4th century B.C. (See, this blog is just oozing scholarship and research; you don't get this kind of cool stuff in every little arts blog, y'know...)

That choral number is neatly divided into what us music nerds call "ternary form", or good old ABA. Following a lively, highly rhythmic section ("Sur la grève en feu"), we have a more lyrical section for male chorus ("Voilà notre domaine") in which the guys who, er, "fish" for pearls (yes, the title is a tad lacking in common sense; I've never heard a fisherman complain "Durn - the pearls just ain't bitin' today"...) sing of their disdain for the physical danger of their occupation. What strikes me about this passage is the sound of the sonorous four-part harmony; it sounds for all the world like a male glee club. It could be the Yale Whiffenpoofs singing a newly-written alma mater for the new branch campus in Lyons... 

It dawned on me that I've heard another operatic passage for men's voices which was practically identical - even in the same key of B flat: the chorus of students that ends the prologue in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, composed nearly twenty years later. The passage in question begins  "Écoutons! il est doux de boire." as the students anticipate the lively stories Hoffmann has just agreed to spin for them. It further dawned on me that, while there are plenty of men's choruses in Italian opera (the sotto voce number for Gilda's abductors in Rigoletto, for example), I can't think of any resembling these two French examples, one of which is a clone of the other. That interests me. Did Offenbach admire the Bizet passage and have it in mind for his prologue, or is this in some way a characteristic of French opera? I guess it could be sheer coincidence, but that's no fun, right?

Here's another interesting comparison. I'll confess it seems outlandish that Giuseppe Verdi, whose legendary career was in full, brilliant bloom by the time he composed Aida in 1871, would feel he needed to turn to a failed opera by a young twenty-something Frenchman in drafting his score. But again: is it complete coincidence that a scene from Aida resembles the design of a parallel scene from Pearl Fishers in every important detail, when Bizet's opera appeared eight years earlier?

When Bizet's Hindu priestess Leila arrives in Ceylon in Act I to take on the responsibility of guarding the safety of the pearl-diving community (There! I said it: you "dive" for pearls, you don't "fish" for 'em. Yeah, I need to get over this, I know.), she accepts the gig with all due ritual and pomp, swearing to the gods and promising to attend to her duties with honor. The natives rejoice and slowly exit with their new spiritual leader, singing a majestic hymn of praise as they accompany her to complete preparations. One character remains alone on stage: it is the other new member of the tribe, Nadir, who will sing an impressive aria ("Je crois entendre encore") amounting to a soliloquy in which he expresses how he feels about what has just taken place.

Now turn to Aida, in Act I, scene ii, the scene in which Radames is chosen the new military leader who will lead Egyptian forces into victorious combat with Ethiopia. Isn't this pretty much the same deal? Radames will, in effect, also be "guarding" his people; he promises to attend his duties with honor; the crowd bears him away, slowly exiting as they belt out a majestic patriotic anthem. Again, one character is left alone on stage to emote about her reactions to these events: our title heroine, whose soliloquy is the masterful solo "Ritorna vincitor!"

Two operas, less than ten years apart, with scenes that have "that clone thing goin' on". You be the judge.

My third example probably is mere coincidence, but even so, Bizet should get a half-credit for having done it first. Once the illicit suck-face kissy-kissy affair between Nadir and Leila is discovered (and let's face it: what were the odds of this remaining a secret? I mean, they were singing opera at the top of their lungs on top of a big rock. What a "shock" they were overheard, right?), the outraged citizens of Ceylon begin screaming (with raised soft palates and diaphragmatic support) for death, death, DEATH! ("Nos bras frapperont et dans leur sang se plongeront!") This is a scenario that will become very familiar to opera-lovers in Aida (My - Verdi really got quite cozy with Pearl Fishers, vraiment?) and Turandot, two operas with similarly blood-crazed mobs.

As for Pearl Fishers moments that foreshadow Carmen some twelve years later, they are just all over the place. Here are my faves:
  1. After Zurga administers the "oath of office" to Leila, in which she swears faithfulness three times, he becomes suspicious of her sudden nervousness (she just recognized her old flame Nadir and is a little freaked out) and warns her of the consequences of failure. In her first assertive vocal utterance, Leila recovers her composure and sings "Je reste ici quand j'y devrais mourir!" (I'll stay here even should I die!) in a vocal line that shoots up to a high A flat and, demonstrating the depth of her resolve, descends to the D flat above middle C.  When you hear this phrase, you might be reminded (as I was) of a similar declamatory line for Carmen in the opera's tragic final scene. With Don Jose holding her at knife-point and demanding that she tell him she loves him, Carmen defies him with the words "Je l’aime et devant la mort meme, Je répèterai que je l’aime!" in a phrase that also soars up to a thrilling high A flat and ends on - guess what? - a D flat. Two women, each defying death in her own way, both in the key of D flat.
  2. Leila not only provided musical inspiration for one of the gypsy's climactic moments, she also foreshadowed the role of Micaela, the seconda donna role of Jose's "girl next door" sweetheart. Early in Act II of Pearl Fishers, Leila is finally alone after completing her day's prayers. Unable to sleep, she expresses joy at having recognized Nadir in her aria "Comme autre fois". Once more, anyone even casually familiar with the music of Carmen will sit up and take notice during the orchestral introduction to this solo: Bizet features the solo French horn, an unusual choice. Sopranos generally are associated with high-range instruments such as the violin or (as with Norma in her aria "Casta diva") the flute. It's hard to articulate exactly what effect is produced by the mellow, almost baritone-ish timbre and range of the horn in this context; it's certainly results in a suave, perhaps reflective affect. Regardless, recall the intro to Micaela's more celebrated solo "Je dis" in Act III: if you guessed "horn solo", you win the Samsonite luggage and a new car! (Figuratively speaking...) As with all examples in this post, the resemblance is dramatic.
Hey, here's one more cool li'l factoid about Sri Lanka: I'll bet you didn't know that our word "serendipity" can be traced back to Sri Lanka, did you? There have been many names for the island throughout its long history. For instance, ancient Arabs called it "Serendib". There is an old Persian folk tale about "The Three Princes of Serendib" in which three fellers keep getting into trouble but always manage to stumble onto the solution by accident. Thus "serendipity" means "a happy accident". 

There. Don't you feel a little smarter now? Of course you do.

Next week: a theory, possibly dead-wrong (after all, it's my theory, so let's lower expectations, 'kay?), about the possible inspiration for the site of Leila's prayer-post and of her ill-fated rendezvous with Nadir: the Sigiriya, an amazing natural wonder on Sri Lanka.

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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