The Pearl Fishers – opera in three acts to a libretto by Eugène Cormon & Michel Carré [excerpts; edition by Brad Cohen; sung in an English translation by David Parry]
Zurga – Simon Keenlyside
Nadir – Barry Banks
Leïla – Rebecca Evans
Nourabad – Alastair Miles
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 10-12 September 2007 in Blackheath Halls, London
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 3156
Duration: 79 minutes
Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” is, after “Carmen”, amongst the composer’s most popular work. “Carmen” is a special case because, although it was not an instant success at its premiere, three months later it was well on its way to becoming a global phenomenon, even though by then Bizet had died. “The Pearl Fishers” didn’t enjoy a revival for many years (and in a corrupt edition now put to rights by Brad Cohen. Like many an opera plot (not least “Carmen”), “The Pearl Fishers” is a love story in which two men find they are in love with the same woman. However, it is not quite as simple as that, as “The Pearl Fishers” has an Asian setting.
Given that Orientalism and the love of the exotic in the arts in the second half of the nineteenth-century had become fashionable, certainly in France, setting an opera against a background of a strange, foreign country (taking the meaning of ‘strange’ as being unknown, unfamiliar, alien and remote) adds another element to the work in which design, colour and dance can enhance the opera’s theatricality. The opposite of the exotic might be the realism of verismo, although oddly enough “Carmen”, reckoned to be the first verismo opera, is also an example of the composer using Spanish-Moorish exoticism as a setting for the work. Puccini, a verismo composer in such pieces as “La bohème” and “Tosca”, also gave some of his operas exotic settings such as Japan for “Madama Butterfly” and China for “Turandot”. Similarly “The Pearl Fishers” is also a mixture of verismo and the exotic.
Setting an opera in surroundings unfamiliar to its audience heightens the theatricality and acts as a way of seducing spectators into embarking on a journey. “The Pearl Fishers” is set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where the locals are preparing for the fishing season, a time when they traditionally find a new leader. Zurga is elected as the head fisherman and when an old friend, Nadir, appears, they reminisce about the time they were in the temple together at Kandi where they both fell in love with Leïla, the priestess of Brahma. Both had sworn allegiance to never approach the priestess.
However, for the initiation ceremony in which a virgin priestess prays for the fishermen, Leïla is the chosen one. Despite her forsaking of her two would-be lovers, she recognises Nadir and eventually meets him by the water’s edge and they are reunited. Nadir goes against his word and plans to leave with Leïla, but they are discovered by the high priest Nourabad and Nadir is imprisoned. A jealous Zurga seeks revenge for his friend’s duplicity. When Leïla pleads for the release of Nadir he turns her away. However, when he recognises her necklace as the one he gave to a young girl who had saved his life, he sets about giving Nadir and Leïla their freedom.
A pot-boiler of a plot, perhaps, but it is Bizet’s music that lifts the exotic tale to a higher level with its ravishingly beautiful score. Whether or not the music has anything to do with the location in question is a moot point but the way it is written announces that it is completely different to the writing of a traditional Romantic score for western ears. Using Oriental dance music and tambourines gives the music a flavour of the exotic even if, strictly speaking, this may not be the authentic ethnic sound of Ceylon.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Brad Cohen plays Bizet’s score with the utmost sincerity. Blackheath Halls provide a warm ambience for the recording, so that the music doesn’t sound studio-bound with the resulting lack of atmosphere that that entails. The four soloists are recorded so that the listener can hear every syllable. Clarity and beauty combine on this “Opera in English” release for well over an hour of Bizet’s score. Also included are two ‘bonus’ tracks. The first is a trio for Leïla, Nadir and Zurga, written by Benjamin Godard after Bizet’s death, which rather unnecessarily compensated for the various cuts made by the publisher Choudens, and an alternative and again-posthumous ending for the famous Act One duet between Nadir and Zurga, ‘Then from the holy shrine’ (‘Au fond du temple saint’) which has remained the opera’s biggest hit, which has unfortunately been debased through all sorts of unwanted commercial associations.
The purity and subtlety of Rebecca Evans’s voice in the Act Two Recitative and Cavatina ‘I am alone here in the night’ is quite breathtaking. There is an ethereal and pellucid quality to the phrasing that is frankly astonishing. The two male singers’ voices coalesce well. Act One is mostly exchanges between Nadir and Zurga until Leïla appears. Simon Keenlyside and Barry Banks work wonders and bring the recording to glorious life. Act Two has Nadir and Leila expressing their love for each other, while in Act Three Alastair Miles makes a brief appearance as the High Priest Nourabad. They are all accompanied by the rich choral sound of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir.
Even without the benefit of colourful costumes, settings and choreography, Bizet’s musical world creates an ambience of the exotic. It is easy to follow, especially in the English translation by David Parry. As a primer to learn more about “The Pearl Fishers” it is exemplary and as a fine example of beautiful and pioneering music it is unmatched.