October 7, 2012

Beyond "The Duet": OTHER pleasures of The Pearl Fishers

How is it that Bizet's Pearl Fishers has achieved the status of a standard repertoire piece when it struggled for acceptance for decades following its premiere in 1863?

The answer lies in a certain tenor-baritone duet, and a little dog named Nipper.

Nipper, whom we hope was up to date on all his shots... 
You remember Nipper; he's the dog listening with cocked-head attention to an old gramophone machine from which emanated "his master's voice", an image adopted as the logo for RCA Victor. (Blog digression: there really was a dog named Nipper; he lived in England from 1884-1895 and got his name from an unfortunate tendency to bite visitors on the backs of their legs. We can't, therefore,  rule out the possibility that his master was actually saying "Bad doggie... BAD DOGGIE..." in that recording.)

Although Pearl Fishers was far from the biggest flop in opera history in its debut season - it did, after all, receive a respectable eighteen performances at the Théâtre Lyrique - it was not revived in subsequent seasons during the composer's lifetime and was treated unkindly by all critics save Hector Berlioz.

Once Carmen had established itself as an authentically great - and popular - masterwork, opera companies began fitful revivals of Pearl Fishers in an attempt to ride the coat-tails of Bizet's sudden popularity with his next most stageworthy piece. All sorts of dubious tweakings were implemented by well-meaning directors. In various bogus versions, Zurga was killed by Nourabad, Leila committed suicide, and other lame ideas. Such re-worked stagings were common through the end of the ninetheenth century, but none found a foothold with the public or with critics.

Despite an apparently well-received Metropolitan Opera production in 1916 with a dream cast including Caruso as Nadir, the Ceylonese romance muddled along on the periphery of the repertoire until the second half of the twentieth century. Gradually, this "little opera that could" began popping up on season schedules of the Welsh National Opera, the English National Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, and others. These days, productions are commonplace. While the consensus is that Pearl Fishers (owing to its problematic libretto) is "no Carmen", the opera world at large has decided that the musical richness of the score repays tasteful productions. It's here to stay.

What changed? The dawn of the recording industry.

My theory: had high-fidelity recordings and radio existed in Bizet's lifetime, there likely would have been the same profusion of recordings of the opera's most popular number, the aforementioned duet for Zurga and Nadir in Act I, that exist today. That duet, of course, is  "Au fond du temple saint", six heavenly minutes of Bizet at his most suavely melodic. If the opera-going public in Paris had been as bombarded with recordings of the duet as modern generations, Pearl Fishers would doubtless have managed to gain the same level of affection it enjoys now.

And bombarded we surely have been! Who has recorded "Au fond"? Who hasn't?! Name a tenor: Bjorling, Domingo, Gedda, Kraus, Simoneau, Alagna, Pavarotti, Bocelli, and on and on and on through the gallery of tenorial celebrities. Name a baritone: Blanc, Milnes, Warren, Merrill, Tyrfel, Hvorostovsky, and dozens more.

The result is an omnipresence of a piece of music which has practically put it in the (dreaded) category of "crossover" music, defined (by moi) as "classical music enjoyed by musically illiterate people who don't realize it's classical music".

The good side of this phenomenon: a perfectly nice little opera lives on, bringing enjoyment to thousands, even though those thousands understand it's "no Carmen".

The bad side: Pearl Fishers ends up being perceived as a one-hit wonder, not unlike the 1970's band Looking Glass whose lone success "Brandy" exists in perpetuity on soft rock stations.  I believe that, oh, let's say seven out of ten people who purchase tickets to Pearl Fishers do so mostly because they've heard "Au fond" on their local classical station and want to hear it live and in person.

This perception is a shame. Nothing against "Au fond", mind you, but there are at least two other numbers at least as good which deserve equal popularity, equal representation on recital programs and recordings, and - gosh darn it! - equal respect! (See, I'm getting all worked up now...)

Apparently, all these snakes are also in love with Leila...
The first of these is Nadir's aria "Je crois entendre encore", heard here in a stylish recording by Jussi  Björling. This aria is unique for managing to be unmistakably French in its delicacy and lack of Italianate shouting-from-the-housetops ardor, yet also convincingly exotic. It is the Pearl Fishers number most successful at suggesting a Ceylonese sensibility. With it's unhurried sensuosness, winding melodic lines, high tessitura and constant soft dynamic, "Je crois" evinces for me both Nadir's instant spellbound fascination for his old flame Leila and images of those Indian snake charmers of legend. Quick: think of another aria even remotely similar to this one. The closest example I can think of, and it's not really very similar, would be Tamino's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" from Mozart's Magic Flute, in which the character is at least similarly thunderstruck by one look at a comely soprano. Bizet's ability to conjure up this sort of perfumed exoticism had already appeared by age seventeen, in the hypnotic Adagio second movement of his Symphony in C. Compare the general mood of the Adagio with the aria; the solo oboe in the former is even a good stand-in for a tenor voice.

The other excerpt I want you to get to know is perhaps my favorite in the opera: Zurga's "O Nadir, tendre ami", which opens Act III. In a libretto unfortunately people by cardboard cutouts rather than complex flesh-and-blood creations such as Carmen and Don Jose, this aria at least provided Bizet with a chance to depict a conflicted emotional state, as Zurga agonizes over the prospect of executing Nadir and Leila for their respective betrayals. Here, as nowhere else in the score, the future composer of Carmen is most visible. The aria exudes the character's dignity and integrity, as well as the intense pain of his heartbreak, in music brimming with compelling melodic invention and Bizet's customary masterful vocal writing.

I love it! In fact, it hardly bothers me at all that the scene appears to be a blatant recycling of a dramatic situation already exploited by Giuseppe Verdi just four years earlier in the famous baritone aria "Eri tu" from A Masked Ball. In Verdi's opera, the baritone role in question is Renato, best friend and aide-in-chief to Riccardo, the "governor of Boston". Renato discovers that Riccardo has betrayed their friendship by having an affair with Renato's wife Amelia. Like Zurga, Renato is faced with executing both a woman he once loved and a weak but still-loved friend. If "O Nadir, tendre ami" fails to exceed "Eri tu" in dramatic and musical potency, the case can be made that it holds its own in comparison, no mean feat for a work composed by a twenty-five-year-old apprentice composer. In comparison, at the time of A Masked Ball, Verdi was unquestionably the Greatest Living Composer, at the height of his considerable powers.

So go ahead - enjoy the duet! You know you want to; just wallow in all that tenor-baritone mellowness like a hog in the mud. But please: get to know the rest of the gems awaiting your attention in this imperfect, yet perfectly beautiful opera of Bizet's youth. You're welcome.

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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