• Opera in-Depth: Les pêcheurs de perles

    We have already tackled Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles at Opera Lively, in an article published as part of the "Beyond the Standard Repertoire" thread.

    Opera Carolina patrons (they'll be presenting the opera in Charlotte, NC, on April 13, 18, and 21, 2013; announcement and tickets [here]) and other readers interested in this beautiful opera, please click first on the link below and read the older article in our "Beyond the Standard Repertoire" section; it makes sense to read it first since it introduces the opera, etc.; then come back to this one for supplementation of the information - at the end of that article, we've placed a link to conveniently bring you right back here):

    [click here first for the basic, older article]

    Once you're back to read this one, please notice that most of the information in this article below is available in its "Comments" section so make sure you scroll down.

    Also, read three interviews with Opera Carolina's principal singers for their upcoming production; Janinah Burnett as Leila, Chad Johnson as Nadir, and Mark Walters as Zuniga - so that Opera Carolina patrons can get familiar with the singers, in anticipation of the shows.

    [click here for the interviews with the singers]

    This is the full version of the pre-opera talk delivered at the theater by Opera Lively's envoy:

    [click here for the pre-opera talk]

    The article below was written by Opera Lively's chief editor and adminstrator Schigolch:


    Now, we will basically complete the information provided, including some additional details.

    Many people will be aware of this opera mainly for three wonderful numbers, that we will present in several performances since the early 20th century to our days. Those numbers are:

    1.- Duet between Nadir and Zurga: 'Au fond du temple saint'.

    A recent version with Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel:

    2.- Nadir's aria: 'À cette voix...Je crois entendre encore'

    A legendary performance of Alfredo Kraus:

    3.- Leila's aria: 'Me voilà seule dans la nuit...Comme autrefois'

    Nice and precise rendition from French soprano Andrée Esposito:

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Opera in-Depth: Les pêcheurs de perles started by Schigolch View original post
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      The libretto, in French and English versions:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Les Pêcheurs de Perles

      Opera in Three Acts

      Libretto by Eugéne Cormon & Michel Carré

      Music by George Bizet


      Leïla, priestress of Brahma: Soprano
      Nadir, a fisherman: Tenor
      Zurga, chief of the fishermen: Baritone
      Nourabad: priest of Brahma: Bass

      Fishermen, Indian, Brahma priests

      Ceylon, in ancient times


      2 flutes, 1 piccolo
      2 oboes, 1 English horn
      2 clarinets
      2 bassoons

      4 horns
      2 trumpets
      3 trombones

      2 kettledrums
      Drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, tom-tom

      2 Harps


      On stage: 2 flutes, tambourine, harp
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Granted, the libretto was not the strongest part about Les pêcheurs de perles. And Bizet had only three months to wrote the score. However, he was able to go into the soul of the characters, beyond the rather feeble story and pretty average wording.

      Bizet, as other composers at that time, was "accused" of Wagnerism. While it's true than he was fond of Tannhäuser, he was able to use effectively the orchestra to provide some depth to the drama and even present some similar vocal lines here and there, the true musical reference is not Wagner, but Berlioz or, if we want to go the German way, Weber.

      Leïla is a lyrical soprano, with a pure and limpid vocality. Nadir, a lyrical tenor, is more about being expressive than any heroics. Zurga is rather high-pitched for a baritone, same as Nourabad for a bass. All four have their elements of difficulty, but they are not among Opera's hardest roles.
    1. Aramis's Avatar
      Aramis -
      Quote Originally Posted by Schigolch View Post
      the true musical reference is not Wagner, but Berlioz or, if we want to go the German way, Weber.
      And not his teacher, Gounod? It's Carmen that aroused the accussation about Bizet stealing from him, but surely he was influenced by him from the beginnings (especially considering that his early symphony was, if I remember well, unargueable rip-off from Gound, to some extent).
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Yes, Gounod's influence is there, too.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      The duet between Zurga and Nadir, 'Au fond du temple saint', is one of the highlights of the opera. It's divided in two parts: the first, in E-flat major, is devoted to the "goddess" from Candi. The second, in F major, is a hymn to friendship. They are linked by an energy recitative. More often than not, the second part, 'Amitié sante', is cut and replaced by a reprise of the "goddess" lines. That was not written by Bizet, but is common practice since the 19th century.

      With great skill Bizet conjures a mysterious atmosphere using muted strings and singing in perfect fourths: 'Au fond du temple saint'. The action, that was frantic up to this point, suddenly freezes, it seems we are in a different, quieter world. Enter the flute and, for the first time in the opera, the harp. When the face of Leïla is revealed, the woodwind accompany the singers. A crescendo drives us into the recitative and, after the promise 'Jurons de rester amis', we got either the motif of the "goddess" again, with the same orchestration, or the second stanza.

      Au fond du temple saint
      Paré de fleurs et d'or,
      Une femme apparaît!
      Je crois la voir encore!

      Une femme apparaît!
      Je crois la voir encore!

      La foule prosternée
      La regarde, etonnée,
      Et murmure tous bas:
      Voyez, c'est la déesse!
      Qui dans l'ombre se dresse
      Et vers nous tend les bras!

      Son voile se soulève!
      Ô vision! ô rêve!
      La foule est à genoux!

      NADIR et ZURGA
      Oui, c'est elle!
      C'est la déesse plus charmante et plus belle!
      Oui, c'est elle!
      C'est la déesse qui descend parmi nous!
      Son voile se soulève et la foule est à genoux!

      Mais à travers la foule
      Elle s'ouvre un passage!

      Son long voile déjà
      Nous cache son visage!

      Mon regard, hélas!
      La cherche en vain!

      Elle fuit!

      Elle fuit!
      Mais dans mon âme soudain
      Quelle étrange ardeur s'allume!

      Quel feu nouveau me consume!

      Ta main repousse ma main!

      Ta main repousse ma main!

      De nos cœurs l'amour s'empare
      Et nous change en ennemis!

      Non, que rien ne nous sépare!

      Non, rien!

      ZURGA et NADIR
      Jurons de rester amis!
      Oh oui, jurons de rester amis!

      Oui, c'est elle! C'est la déesse!
      En ce jour qui vient nous unir,
      Et fidèle à ma promesse,
      Comme un frère je veux te chérir!
      C'est elle, c'est la déesse
      Qui vient en ce jour nous unir!
      Oui, partageons le même sort,
      Soyons unis jusqu'à la mort!

      Amitié sainte
      Unis nos âmes fraternelles!
      Chassons sans retour
      Ce fatal amour,
      Et la main dans la main,
      en compagnons fidéles,
      Jusques à la mort,
      Ayons même sort!
      Qui, la main dans la main,
      En compagnons fideles
      Qui, soyons amis,
      Ah!, soyons amis jusqu'à la mort!.

      The cut is justified for me since the original score didn't contributed a lot, neither from a dramatic, nor a musical point of view.

      Let's hear first a version with Spanish singers Alfredo Kraus and Vicente Sardinero, singing in 1980:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      And here we can hear the version with the second stanza, sung by Yasu Nakajima and Luca Grassi:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      The aria for tenor "Je crois entendre encore" is arguably the most beautiful fragment of Les pêcheurs de perles.

      A short recitative, energetic when the "fièvre" and the "délire" are invoked, it's accompanied by the strings. Not the most inspired piece of music, but useful enough to prepare the listener for the incoming aria, modulating in the last sentence: "J'écoutais ses doux chants emportés dans l'espace".

      The romanza it's introduced by the English horn, the first time we hear this instrument in the opera. When finally settles in the tonality of A minor, two cellos accompany the voice in his dreamy trip of the score, while the muted violins double the vocal line. The contrast with the cellos is evocative, haunting.

      In the reprise, "Aux clartés des étoiles" the flute replaces the cellos, that now just decorate the melody. The high b-flats for the tenor are marked pianissimo and should be sung with an inefable sweetness, ideally in mezza voce. Traditionally, "charmant souvenir" is repeated at the end to sing a high C, not written in the score.


      À cette voix quel trouble agitait tout mon être?
      Quel fol espoir? Comment ai-je cru reconnaître?
      Hélas! devant mes yeux déjà, pauvre insensé,
      La même vision tant de fois a passé!
      Non, non, c'est le remords, la fièvre, le délire!
      Zurga doit tout savoir, j'aurais tout lui dire!
      Parjure à mon serment, j'ai voulu la revoir!
      J'ai decouvert sa trace, et j'ai suivi ses pas!
      Et caché dans la nuit et soupirant tout bas,
      J'écoutais ses doux chants emportés dans l'espace.


      Je crois entendre encore,
      Caché sous les palmiers,
      Sa voix tendre et sonore
      Comme un chant de ramier!
      O nuit enchanteresse!
      Divin ravissement!
      O souvenir charmant!
      Folle ivresse! doux rêve! rêve d'amour!

      Aux clartés des étoiles,
      Je crois encore la voir,
      Entr'ouvrir ses longs voiles
      Aux vents tièdes du soir!
      O nuit enchanteresse! etc.
      O souvenir charmant!
      Charmant souvenir!

      Let's hear Roberto Alagna:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Leïla's cavatine: "Comme autrefois, dans la nuit sombre" has the most common aria's structure of the period: A-B-A', finishing with a coda. Perhaps the most interesting part is the central one, where Leïla thinks Nadir has been following her, and the voice is beautifully accompanied by the clarinets and the strings. The evocative parts A and A' are somewhat more restrained. Then, towards the end, the singer must visit the high zone of her range, and we can hear a very skilful end with the cellos, the woodwinds and the kettledrums.

      Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre,
      Caché sous le feuillage épais,
      Il veille près de moi dans l'ombre,
      Je puis dormir, rêver en paix!

      Il veille près de moi,
      Comme autrefois, comme autrefois
      C'est lui! mes yeux l'ont reconnu!
      C'est lui! mon âme est rassurée!
      O bonheur! Il est venu,
      Il est là près de moi, ah!

      Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre, etc.

      Let's hear the Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Let's hear some of the more popular renditions of Nadir's aria. There are so many of them, that a selection was needed, of course.

      Enrico Caruso

      He recorded the aria several times. His voice was not really the best for Nadir, anyway, but this early rendition (1904) in Italian, accompanied by a piano, has some interest:


      However, this version in French, recorded twelve years later, is very wrong. Not only because he transposes the aria, and takes away a good part of the magic, but also for the unidiomatic performance and the energetic, unqualified singing:


      Giacomo Lauri-Volpi

      Also singing in Italian, the young Lauri-Volpi doesn't have any problem with the tessitura, and offers some splendid dynamics. A little bit too self-conscious, however:


      John McCormack

      Beautiful, but rather light version by the great Irish tenor (in Italian):


      The Russian tenors

      It's funny how the "Cingalese" fisherman character, written by a French composer, can be so well performed by Russians. Three great examples:

      Smirnov - in Italian, a dreamy, magical rendition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfPg5BysBTU

      Sobinov - in Russian, no less dreamy, no less magical: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEyTkkZ2zDg

      Lemeshev - in Russian, arguably the best rendition ever. You can hear the young man in love, but you can hear also the imminent Death in his voice, almost a fourth character in the love triangle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Vb8PdrQsyQ
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Léopold Simoneau

      One of the classical references of the role. A well sung, sweet rendition, perhaps a trifle too bland.


      Henri Legay

      Also in style, but with a lesser voice than Simoneau's, and rather poor high notes:


      Ferruccio Tagliavini (in Italian)

      A consumate master in the use of the mezza voce. Not that incisive a phraser, though:


      Alain Vanzo

      More a light tenor than a lyrical, Vanzo's Nadir is convincing, though a little bit too affected:


      Alfredo Kraus

      With a different approach than the French singers above, Nadir was one of the best roles sung by Kraus:


      Nicolai Gedda

      With a similar approach than the French singers above, Nadir was one of the best roles sung by Gedda:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Leïla is supposed to be the character around which everything revolves, the love interest of both Zurga and Nadir, the priestesses that breathes fire into the life of this small community of fishers... but the somewhat less interesting music that Bizet wrote for her, makes the female singer takes a second place to their male counterparts. The final result is that very few star sopranos have ever tackled the role.

      This is perhaps the first ever Leïla on record, made by the Italian soprano Olimpia Boronat in 1904. Just for the lovers of the first acoustic recordings:


      Now, let's review the best French singers:

      Janine Micheau was a very good Leïla on stage during the 1950s and 1960s, and she recorded the role twice. The quality of the French singing and the style are apparent here:


      Pierrette Alarie

      A trifle too light for the role, perhaps:


      Andrée Esposito

      Unbeatable 'physique du role' for the part, but too full a voice, perhaps:


      Liliane Berton

      Such a perfect French diction, and with the right type of voice:


      Annick Massis:

      Again a great 'physique du role', but also embodied in a sweet, slightly dreamy, voice that also fit the vocal character:


      Apart from the French singers, there are good renditions by several sopranos, but perhaps the one closer to hitting the mark was Mirella Freni, in the 1960s:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Let's now briefly review some of the singers that have tackled the role of Zurga.

      The French ones

      René Bianco


      Michel Dens


      Gabriel Bacquier


      Ernest Blanc


      The non-French ones:

      Giuseppe Taddei (in Italian)


      Sesto Bruscantini


      Vicente Sardinero

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
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