Les Pêcheurs de Perles [The Pearl Fishers]
“It’s a B-opera,” a voice purred sardonically in the row behind me at the Met, making a small puncture mark in what felt otherwise like general warm enthusiasm following a performance of Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The speaker had a point. If a B-opera is something like a B-movie, then The Pearl Fishers has some of the same characteristics—brevity, spareness (four solo voices and a chorus carry the whole show), and rapid exposition—and is built around a libretto whose central elements might call to mind a Hollywood second feature along the lines of Bird of Paradise or Pearl of the South Pacific: an exotic isle (Ceylon), a prohibited desire, two friends torn apart by their love for the same woman, a devastating storm interpreted by superstitious islanders as a manifestation of divine wrath. In fact it was librettos like this that forged the path to second features like that.
Bizet, who was twenty-four at the time, was handed the libretto on short notice and can hardly be blamed for its thinness, pressured as he was to complete the score within a few months. In the event he turned its shortcomings into virtues. The blank spaces where characterization and dramatic development might have been became a generously open field for self-sufficient lyricism. The plot, such as it is, can be reduced to an overlapping set of mechanically laid-out conflicts: the priestess Leila (sworn to preserve her chastity to secure divine protection for the pearl fishers) is torn between her religious vow and her uncontrollable passion for the hunter Nadir, Nadir is torn between his passion for Leila and his friendship with the fisherman Zurga, and Zurga is torn between his friendship with Nadir and his jealous rage at being rejected by Leila.
After Leila and Nadir are caught in a forbidden embrace and condemned to death, it will be up to Zurga—in rueful atonement for having stirred up the pearl fishers to demand the execution of the lovers—to help the couple escape and offer himself to the vengeance of the mob. One might say that The Pearl Fishers is in some way “about” passion and friendship and, perhaps, the perils of superstitious belief, but the same could be said about the average Jon Hall vehicle. The opera’s true subject is its own music, which is another way of saying that it is indeed about passion.
The Ceylon on which The Pearl Fishers is set is as much an alternate fantasy world as any of the exotic locations in Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes (1735), updated with a very slight sprinkling of mid-nineteenth-century ethnographic pretensions. Essentially it’s an empty arena where elemental passions can surge unrestrainedly (until they slap up against the limits of an ominous and intransigent religion), a zone airily unencumbered…
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