Opera Scotland

Pearl Fishers Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Music
Georges Bizet (born Paris, 25 October 1838; died Le Bougival, nr Paris, 3 June 1875)

Text
Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré.

Source
Original.

Premieres
First performance: Paris (Théâtre-Lyrique), 30 September 1863.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 22 April 1887.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 6 March 1950.
Scottish Opera premiere: Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Theatre Royal), 9 September 1981.

Background
Bizet’s early operatic works were short comedies, and his final one was his masterpiece, Carmen, in name a comic opera, though in reality something far more powerful. Between these events he developed his technique by composing a number of works in various styles. He attempted grand opera, though had little success. He started several works that remained unfinished, and he then composed three romantic pieces in a slighter vein. These were The Fair Maid of Perth, loosely based on Scott, and a brief, exotic piece set in Egypt, Djamileh. These have enjoyed modest success, far exceeded by the opera that preceded them, The Pearl Fishers. This opera is a simple version of the eternal triangle, where two friends fall for the same girl, and one eventually sacrifices himself to allow the other two to survive. It has maintained its hold in the repertoire because of a small number of gloriously memorable melodies, led by the immortal tenor-baritone duet. The only problem with this is that it comes near the start of the opera and threatens to cause a sense of anti-climax. After Bizet’s death, various changes were introduced by other hands, and some elements of Bizet’s original ending were lost. These are now usually restored as close to the original as possible,

Characters
Nadir, a fisherman (tenor)
Zurga, his friend, leader of the fishermen (baritone)
Léïla, a priestess of Brahma (soprano)
Nourabad, High Priest of Brahma (bass)

Plot Summary
The setting is a coastal village in ancient Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). The fishermen have just elected Zurga as their leader when his old friend Nadir returns to the village. He is given a friendly welcome, though he and Zurga had some time before both fallen for a young priestess they had seen on a visit to the city. They decide to put this old rivalry behind them. The fishermen are about to start a period of fishing, and to keep them safe at sea it is deemed necessary to employ the services of a priestess who will pray for them. She is to stay in seclusion during this period. This girl, Léïla, is now brought by the High Priest, Nourabad, and after a brief welcome during which Nadir and Léïla recognise one another, she is taken to her sanctuary to start her vigil. Nadir is unable to keep away, and he joins Léïla in a duet. Nourabad has seen them, however, and denounces them to the villagers. They are condemned to death for sacrilege. In a final meeting with Zurga, Léïla accepts her punishment, but begs for Nadir to be pardoned. This only enrages Zurga further. She gives him a necklace to send to her mother. Later, as Nadir and Léïla are brought out for execution, the village is seen in the distance to be on fire. This is a diversion caused by Zurga, and as the villagers run off, he releases the lovers – he had, years before, given Léïla the necklace in gratitude for her saving his life.

RECORDINGS

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1989

Conductor: Michel Plasson
Orchestre de la Capitole, Toulouse
Barbara Hendricks (Léïla), John Aler (Nadir), Gino Quilico (Zurga).

The French conductor and orchestra give a thoroughly idiomatic performance of this luscious score. The cast is led by two very good Americans – Barbara Hendricks has a lovely purity in her singing, and John Aler shows why his reputation was founded largely on performances of the French repertoire. The Canadian baritone is also excellent.

EMI Classics for Pleasure (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1978

Conductor: Georges Prêtre
Paris Opéra Orchestra
Ileana Cotrubas (Léïla), Alain Vanzo (Nadir), Guillermo Sarabia (Zurga).

A very good group of singers combined with one of the leading French conductors and orchestras, should have ensured that this was a classic recording. For some reason that is not quite the case – there seems to be a slight lack of spontaneity and subtlety. Even so, Alain Vanzo was a great tenor singing his native repertoire and Cotrubas is in her element. The Mexican baritone Guillermo Sarabia died young, but was established in Britain through singing Scarpia in Scottish Opera’s 1980 Tosca as well as Telramund in Lohengrin with the Royal Opera.

PHILIPS (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1953

Conductor: Jean Fournet
Lamoureux Orchestra
Pierrette Alarie (Léïla), Léopold Simoneau (Nadir), René Bianco (Zurga).

This is perhaps the most idiomatic recording of the opera. The singing from the husband and wife team of Simoneau and Alarie, both Canadians, is superbly elegant, and Fournet is an ideal conductor. While the recording does sound thin by today’s standards, and the edition used predates any significant research into the various changes added since Bizet’s time, the principals nevertheless make it worth seeking out.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1960

Conductor: Pierre Dervaux
Orchestra of Opéra-Comique, Paris
Janine Micheau (Léïla), Nicolai Gedda (Nadir), Ernest Blanc (Zurga).

For many years this was the only recording available, and it is still valuable today for its preservation of Nicolai Gedda’s performance. Micheau was rather past her best by 1960, but still sings well. One reissue has been given the very welcome bonus of what was originally a single LP of excerpts from Bizet’s early attempt at a grand opera, Ivan IV – well worth hearing.

The Cast

Dancer
 
Léïla
 a priestess of Brahma
Nadir
 a fisherman, friend of Zurga
Nourabad
 High Priest of Brahma
Zurga
 leader of the fishermen

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