Co-Starring with 'Carmen': Bizet's 'The Pearl Fishers'

From the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

fromWDAV

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Pearl Fishers i

The love of a woman strains the friendship between two fishermen in Bizet's lesser-known opera. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

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Pearl Fishers

The love of a woman strains the friendship between two fishermen in Bizet's lesser-known opera.

Wikimedia Commons

The Hit Single

The opera's popular duet "Au fond du temple saint" — "Deep in the holy temple" — is heard in Act One, as Nadir and Zurga remember their lifelong pledge to affirm their friendship and renounce their love for Leila. In this performance from Covent Garden, tenor John Osborne and baritone sing it in a somewhat different version than the one that's often heard as a concert and recital showpiece.

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The B Side

In Act Two, Leila (soprano Nicole Cabell) remembers her time with Nadir in the aria "Comme autrefois" — "As it was before."

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Is it possible for a musical artist to come up with a work so successful that it actually ends up hurting their reputation? It sounds unlikely, but let's have a look at one possible example.

Mention the name Georges Bizet to a roomful of music lovers and responses will vary widely, ranging from "one of the all time greats" to "lightweight tunesmith" — and every one of the varying opinions might just rest on a single composition. It's a mega-hit that tends to relegate his other works to second string status, leading some to dub Bizet as a "one hit wonder."

Carmen, Bizet's final opera, was largely panned at its Paris premiere in 1875, and the composer died just a few months later. So he never saw what it ultimately became: one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of all time. Carmen's "Habanera," the "Toreador March" and Don Jose's "Flower Song," are just a few of its many hit numbers — which can make it seem as though that single score must surely contain all of Bizet's finest music.

So it's easy to forget that another of the composer's best-loved tunes comes from a different opera, and reveals that there's more to Bizet than just Carmen.

The opera is The Pearl Fishers, and it boasts a tenor-baritone duet, called "Au fond du temple saint," that sits right beside those famous numbers from Carmen on the Bizet hit parade; you can hear it in versions ranging from big band jazz arrangements to synthesized elevator music. But The Pearl Fishers itself has remained in Carmen's shadow — which is too bad, as it has far more to recommend it than just one, ubiquitous duet, and reveals another dimension of Bizet's brilliance.

The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1863 and, like Carmen, it got a rocky reception. But there was one critic who saw things differently right from the start. In one of his last reviews, published a week or so after the opera's first performance, Hector Berlioz cited The Pearl Fishers as evidence of Bizet's "characteristic genius" and described the opera as having "a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces, filled with fire and rich coloring." Listen for yourself, and you might just decide that Berlioz was right.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Bizet's The Pearl Fishers from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — in the opera's first performance there since 1920. Tenor John Osborne and baritone Gerald Finley star as Nadir and Zurga, the troubled friends who join in the famous duet, with soprano Nicole Cabell as Leila, the woman who comes between them.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'The Pearl Fishers'

fromWDAV

Nicole Cabell i

Nicole Cabell sings the role of Leila, the woman Zurga and Nadir both fall in love with in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Devon Cass hide caption

itoggle caption Devon Cass
Nicole Cabell

Nicole Cabell sings the role of Leila, the woman Zurga and Nadir both fall in love with in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

Devon Cass

Bizet's opera is in three acts, all set on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, off the coast of India. ACT ONE opens in a village of pearl divers — or pearl fishers. The fishermen elect Zurga as their tribal chief, promising him their loyalty. A hunter named Nadir shows up after several years away, and asks the men if they'll take him back.

Zurga and Nadir are old friends.  Recalling their last time together they sing the opera's most famous number, the duet "Au fond du temple saint" — "Deep in the holy temple."  Years ago, when the two men visited the great temple, they both fell in love with a beautiful woman who was leading a ceremony. Knowing this woman might come between them, they agreed to renounce her and pledged their eternal friendship.

Before long, the strength of that pledge is tested. In the next scene, a canoe arrives carrying this year's consecrated virgin — a veiled young woman whose ritual songs will protect the fishermen as they go to sea. Her name is Leila, and she's accompanied by the old priest Nourabad. Leila sings her oath of chastity. Zurga, as the fishermen's leader, promises her the most beautiful pearl that's found if she keeps her oath — and death if she does not.  As Leila and Nourabad go into the temple, Zurga and the fishermen head for home.  Nadir stays behind, and Leila begins to sing.

Nadir hears her, and recognizes her songs. She's the woman he and Zurga both fell in love with, and agreed to renounce.  Hearing her now, Nadir is in love all over again. He sings the gentle aria "Je crois entendre encore," following his memories back in time, and feels his resolve melting.  Leila hears Nadir and approaches him.  They soon recognize each other, and declare their love.

ACT TWO begins late at night. At the temple, Nourabad tells Leila she can get some rest, and reminds her of her vow of chastity. She tells a story from her childhood, when she risked her life to save a fugitive. In gratitude, he gave her a necklace and she has worn it ever since.

When Nourabad leaves, Leila senses that Nadir is nearby. When he comes to her, she at first tries to turn him away — but eventually she gives in and the two embrace. Suddenly, the sounds of a storm are heard. Nourabad returns, catches the lovers together, and calls for the villagers to seize them.

Nadir and Leila are forced to appear before Zurga.  At first, all the tribal leader sees is his old friend Nadir and a veiled priestess, and he decides to pardon them. But when Nourabad tears the veil from Leila's face, Zurga recognizes her.  Furious, he retracts his pardon and instead condemns both lovers to death.

Gerald Finley i

Gerald Finley sings the role of Zurga, the leader of the pearl fishers. Canetty Clarke hide caption

itoggle caption Canetty Clarke
Gerald Finley

Gerald Finley sings the role of Zurga, the leader of the pearl fishers.

Canetty Clarke

As ACT THREE opens, Zurga is despondent.  He has gotten over his jealous anger and now he regrets the death sentence he handed down. Leila enters and pleads for Nadir's life.  She tells Zurga that she's prepared to die, but Nadir should be spared.  Instead of inspiring pity, her plea infuriates Zurga.  He tells Leila that he, too, has always loved her, and orders his men to take her away.

Leila removes her precious necklace and hands it to a young fisherman, begging him to give it to her mother after she's gone, but Zurga takes it from him as Leila is led off.

As dawn approaches, a crowd gathers at the holy temple.  As preparations are made for the executions a strange light appears in the distance and the people realize their village is on fire.  As they rush off to save their homes, Zurga appears.  He recognized Leila's necklace and realized that he was the fugitive she saved, so he set the fire himself, as a distraction.  Now he releases Nadir and Leila, forgives them, and helps them to escape. As the opera ends, Nadir and Leila are heard singing in the distance, while Zurga stands alone in the glow of the flames.

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