• Beyond the Standard Repertoire: Les Pêcheurs de Perles

    Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearlfishers) - Analyses of the opera

    It premiered on September 30, 1863
    Music by Georges Bizet (10.25.1838-6.3.1875)
    Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré

    (This article is the first one of two - another one with more details exist, and there is a link to it at the bottom of this one)

    Poor Bizet, he never saw the astounding success of his Carmen, which premièred in March 1875 and was initially very poorly received by the critics and public. Obsessed by what he believed to be his failure as an opera composer and under severe stress, Bizet suffered two heart attacks in rapid succession, and died in three months. At the time of his premature death at the age of 36, the consensus was that he was a concert music composer who shouldn't have messed with opera (in spite of the fact that in his short life he composed 30 of them, although only 6 survived in some sort of performing version). Here are some of the adjectives thrown at Carmen by critics right after the première: "dull," "obscure," "vulgar," "undramatic," "unoriginal," "suffocating," and "contemptible."

    Just a few weeks after the composer's death, however, Carmen started its meteoric rise to fame, conquering wild applause from audiences all over the world, and is today a perennial favorite, to the point that it completely drowned Bizet's other attempts at opera. While I'm not particularly fond of his third best known effort, La Jolie Fille de Perth, I find that Les Pêcheurs de Perles, his second opera which he composed at age 24, is unfairly relegated to relative obscurity as at best a side kick for its much more famous sister.

    It didn't fare that well either at first, achieving only 18 performances after opening night at the Théâtre Lyrique that had commissioned the work. These early performances were actually well received by the public, but Bizet was unfortunate enough to get the endorsement of Berlioz, who said it contained "a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces filled with fire and rich coloring."

    The Parisian operatic environment at the time was rather dominated by Meyerbeer's and Delibes' cliques, and Berlioz - another big favorite of mine - was constantly harassed by critics as inferior to these two (an absurd assessment of the relative merits of these composers, given that Berlioz in my opinion was hundreds of miles ahead of these two in terms of creativity). Therefore, getting Berlioz's endorsement wasn't exactly a good thing. After the initial good run of 18 performances, the opera suddenly dropped dead, under Le Figaro's statement that "there were no fishermen in the text and no pearls in the music."

    It is true that the libretto is vastly inferior to the music - a fact acknowledged by the librettists themselves, who were embarrassed with their final product and considered it unworthy of the melodies that Bizet composed for it.

    Still, we've seen weak libretti before. And Les Pêcheurs de Perles does have a number of operatic strengths: an exotic locale; a beautiful woman who breaks up with the societal expectations imposed on her by her religious role in the name of love; two heroic gentlemen who feel tortured by the fact that their cherished and long-standing friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman; there is treason, guilt, altruism, redemption, sacrifice, death... Isn't it what opera is all about?

    And then, there is the sublime music. Two numbers from this opera are revered by fans and elevated to the status of some of the most beautiful pieces of operatic music ever composed. The Australian Broadcast Corporation in association with Opera Australia conducted a large poll with 10,000 voters considered to be seasoned opera lovers to vote for the 100 best operatic numbers of all time - including overtures, arias, duets, ensembles, intermezzi, etc. The number that came on top was the spectacular duet for male voices between Nadir and Zurga in act I, Au fond du temple saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles. While many may have their own preference and may disagree, there is no doubt that the result is an endorsement of Bizet's beautiful music for this opera. Here it is, in a version with Alfredo Kraus and Barry McDaniel:

    And if this weren't enough, we get still another divine moment, the spectacular, goose-bumping Je crois entendre encore, Nadir's lyrical Act I aria, equally beautiful in its original French version and its Italian translation Mi par d'udir ancora.

    Here we have a full-throttled Plácido Domingo producing an impressive sound (but lacking in delicacy), and then we can contrast with Giuseppe di Stefano's masterful rendition of the Italian version, with his hallmark extraordinary musicality:

    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!

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

    Mi par d'udire ancora,
    o scosa in mezzo ai fior,
    la voce sua talora,
    sospirare l'amor!
    O notte di carezze,
    gioir che non ha fin,
    o sovvenir divin!
    Folli ebbrezze del sogno, sogno d'amor!

    Dalle stelle del cielo,
    Altro menar che da lei,
    La veggio d'ogni velo,
    Prender li per le ser!
    O notte di carezze!
    gioir che non ha fin!

    It's not only of male voices that Les Pêcheurs de Perles is made. Here we have Leila's aria, Comme autrefois, with Ekaterina Siurina:

    So, tell me, my friends, how come such a beautiful opera is grossly neglected and underrated?

    Short synopsis:


    Zurga, head fisherman, baritone
    Nadir, hunter and fisherman, tenor
    Leila, priestress of Brahma, soprano
    Nourabad, high priest of Brahma, bass
    Chorus: Firshermen, Indians, Brahmins

    Setting: ancient Ceylon

    Act 1
    A tribe of pearl fishers in Ceylon is about to go out in an expedition, and they are gathered to elect their chief. They settle for Zurga and swear obedience to him. Zurga's childhood friend, the hunter Nadir, comes to join him and the two reminesce of an episode when they both fell in love with a beautiful priestress (Leila). They made a pact of never pursuing her, not to jeopardize their eternal friendship. A veiled priestress arrives by canoe to bless the firshermen. Nadir recognizes her as the same Leila, and can't control his love for her.

    Act 2
    High priest Nourabad reminds Leila that she will be put to death if she renounces her virginity and breaks her sacred vows as a priestress. She claims innocence, but soon enough is surprised by Nourabad while singing a passionate love duet with Nadir. She is dragged to the presence of Zurga to pass judgement on her fate. He unveils her, recognizes her too, and is enraged at what he sees as his friend's ultimate betrayal - the pact has been broken. He condemns both to death.

    Act 3
    Zurga feels guilty about his decision, but his rage and jealousy are rekindled by Leila's appeal to him for Nadir's life. When he is about to pursue his vengeance, he notices the necklace she is wearing: he was once wounded and being chased by enemies, and a girl protected him and saved him. He gave her the necklace as a thank you gesture. Recognizing that Leila was once his savior and still experiencing friendship feelings for Nadir, Zurga sets fire to the village to distract the fishermen, and in the confusion that ensues, he frees the prisoners. Nourabad and the villagers understand the trickery and pursue them intending to kill all three. Zurga helps the lovers onto a boat and stays behind to delay the pursuers. While Nadir and Leila escape, he dies in the flames.


    - Original cast: Leila was Léontine de Maësen; Nadir was François Morini, and Zurga, Jean-Vital Ismaël. Nourabad was Prosper Guyot
    - Bizet composed the opera over one summer. It was his second one to be staged, but probably his sixth to be composed.
    - Bizet had intended a setting in Mexico, but then changed it to Ceylon.
    - He first thought he'd call the opera Leila
    - The inspiration for the topic was Spontini's La Vestale. Bellini's Norma was also an influence.
    - It was first written as an opéra comique with spoken dialogues, but shortly before the opening, Bizet decided to replace them by recitative.
    - It was supposed to open on September 15, but it was postponed by two weeks because the soprano was sick.
    - Many corrupt editions of the vocal score were issued since 1886, and the original wasn't found and restored until 1975. Due to the corrupt versions, the famous duet Au fond du temple saint is incorrect everywhere - the correct version doesn't repeat the melodie for oui, c'est elle, c'est la déese, but rather has a section in 3/4 (amitié sainte).
    - The corruption results in several alternative endings, including one in which Zurga is stabbed to death rather than perishing in the fire.
    - Some passages of the original 1863 version have only survived as vocal score.
    - At Covent Garden in 1887 the role of Zurga was sung by the same baritone that created the role of Don José in Carmen: Paul Lhérie.
    - The opera was first given in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, the land of its setting) in 2008.

    Performance history:

    After the initial run, it was never given again in Bizet's lifetime. It resumed its trajectory thanks to Carmen's success and growing curiosity for Bizet's other works for the stage, and from 1886 through 1889 it was given in 12 cities outside France, starting with La Scala in 1886. Covent Garden was in April of 1887. An Italian version was performed in Paris in 1889. The Opéra Comique revived it in 1893, thirty years after the première. For the last 30 years, Les Pêcheurs de Perles has achieved some notoriety, and is on the fringe of the repertoire. The American première was in 1893 in Philadelphia. The Met had an incomplete version in 1896, and the first complete version was given in 1916 with Caruso.

    Notable performers:

    More complete information on singers including video clips can be found in our second article about this opera, and the link to it is down at the bottom of this article. For now, let's say this:

    Great Leilas have included Emma Clavé, Luisa Tetrazzini, Christiane Eda-Pierre, and Mirella Freni. The first one on record was Olimpia Boronat. Notable native speakers of French who sang this role include Janine Micheau, Pierrete Alarie, Andrée Esposito, Liliane Berton, and Annick Massis.

    Nadir was one of Caruso's favorite roles, and was also famously sung by Ferruccio Tagliavini, Alfredo Kraus, and Nicolai Gedda. Other notables include Giacomo Lauri-Volpe, John McCormack, the Russians Smirnov, Sobinov, and Lemeshev, Canadian Léopold Simeauneau (one of my favorites), Henri Legay, and Alain Vanzo.

    Important Zurgas have included native French speakers René Bianco, Michel Dens, Gabriel Bacquier, Ernest Blanc, and non-native Giuseppe Taddei, Sesto Bruscantini, and Vicente Sardinero.

    The Music of Les Pêcheurs de Perles:

    The prelude is short and serene. This is followed by a lyrical opening chorus, with a beautiful middle-section. Rapidly we get to the famous duet Au fond du temple saint, which is scored for flute and harp to underline the nobility and sanctity of the situation, according to the French convention of the time. The prelude repeats when Leila enters the stage. After a few exchanges, we hear a solemn hymn to Brahma. Next we get the famous romance Je crois entendre encore, which is done somewhat in barcarolle style. After Nadir sings it and falls asleep, Leila sings a very ornamented incantation to Siva.

    Act II opens with two piccolos over an offstage chorus. A long and dramatic recitative follows, when Leila tells Nourabad how she once saved a stranger and was given a necklace. Next, Leila sings a joyful cavatina Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre. A solo oboé is heard, recovering the theme of Nadir's romance. The lovers embrace in halting Allegro, which is continued into an expansive and melodious duet Ton corps n'a pas compris le mien. A commotion ensues, and the people sing a brief but exhuberantly distressed chorus. A dramatic scene ends the act with Zurga's condemnation of the two lovers, punctuated by very theatrical repetitions as the crowd calls for the lovers to be put to death.

    Act III opens with Zurga singing tenderly of his guilt and agony, Ô Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge. A tense confrontation between Zurga and Leila starts with a duet and degenerates in angry exchanges. The chorus sings and dances in anticipation of the execution. Leila and Nadir sing a hymn of love. More commotion as Zurga sets the village on fire with much use of chorus, and it all ends with a somewhat anticlimactic finale (unlike the more majestic finale for act II), featuring the repetition of the friendship leitmotif.

    The general style of the music is French lyricism, sometimes over-romantic, uneven, a product of a composer who was still young, but undoubtedly very beautiful in various moments. Overall, there is good pace, the music flows very smoothly, and even the recitatives are very pleasant and easily get into bursts of melodious ariosi. The recurring friendship leitmotif is beautiful. There are opportunities for exotic ballets. What's not to like?


    1 1940(LE) - Bianchirosa Gino - Orchestra*
    2 1950(RA) - Rother Arthur - RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin*
    3 1950(STU) - Bron Onissim - Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra*
    4 1951(STU) - Leibowitz René - Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris*
    5 1953(SE) - Erede Alberto - Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire*
    6 1953(STU) - Fournet Jean - Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux*
    7 1954(LE) - Santini Gabriele - Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli*
    8 1954(STU) - Cluytens André - L'Opéra-Comique de Paris*
    9 1957 - Pintev Luben - Ruse Opera*
    10 1959(LI) - Fabritiis Oliviero De - Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli*
    11 1959(RA) - Rosenthal Manuel - Orchestre Radio-Lyrique*
    12 1960(RA) - Rosa Parodi Armando La - RAI Milano*
    13 1961(STU) - Dervaux Pierre - L'Opéra-Comique de Paris*
    14 1961?(SE) - Etcheverry Jésus - Orchestre Symphonique*
    15 1963(RA) - Fournet Jean - Radio Filharmonisch Orkest*
    16 1966(LI) - Fournet Jean - Chicago Lyric Opera*
    17 1970(STU) - Cillario Carlo Felice - Gran Teatro del Liceo (Barcelona)*
    18 1973(LI) - Atherton David - Welsh Philharmonia Orchestra*
    19 1974(LI) - Queler Eve - Opera Orchestra of New York*
    20 1977(STU) - Prêtre Georges - L'Opéra de Paris*
    21 1978?(SE) - Pesek Libor - Frysk Orchestra*
    22 1980(LI) - Pallo Imre - Opera Company of Philadelphia*
    23 1980(LI) - Simmons Calvin - New York City Opera*
    24 1981(LI) - Rivoli Gianfranco - Orquesta de Bilbao*
    25 1989(STU) - Plasson Michel - Capitole de Toulouse*
    26 1990(LC) - Piantini Carlos - Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia Opera*
    27 1991(LI) - Flint Mark - Opera Pacific*
    28 1992(LI) - Bernet Dietfried - Forum Filharmonisch**
    29 1998(LI) - Bernardi Mario - Chicago Lyric Opera*
    30 2002(LI) - Queler Eve - Opera Orchestra of New York*
    31 2004(LI) - Lacombe Jacques - Opera Company of Philadelphia*
    32 2004(LI] - Viotti Marcello - Teatro La Fenice di Venezia***
    33 2006(LI) - Fournillier Patrick - Symfonisch Orkest van de Vlaamse Opera*
    34 2008(LI) - Chaslin Frédéric - Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montréal*
    35 2008(LI) - Mauceri John - Chicago Lyric Opera*
    36 2008(SE) - Cohen Brad - London Philharmonic Orchestra*

    Key: LI = Live, one performance; LC = Live Composite; STU = Studio; LE, SE = excerpts; RA = Radio; * = audio only; ** = video only; *** = audio and video.

    My preferred recording:

    This is not mainstream (Jean Fournet, 1953 studio, Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux), but I don't think you can find a more beautiful version of Je crois entendre encore than the one here, by Canadian tenor Léopold Simoneau. It is so strikingly beautiful that I listen to it over and over, at times. His real-life wife, soprano Pierrette Alarie, is an equally compelling Leila. The problem here is that René Bianco's Zurga is definitely subpar, especially when compared to the singing of the other two principals. Still, I love so much Simoneau's interpretation that I hold this recording in high esteem. Xavier Depraz is correct as Nourabad.

    Another recommended recording is the one by Cluytens (which is actually more energetically conducted than Fournet's) with the Opéra-Comique Orchestra and Chorus, 1955 studio, with Martha Angelici as Leila and Henry Legay as Nadir. Michel Den's Zurga is much better than René Bianco's above. So, this recording has its strenghts and is fair competition to the one I prefer above, but still, Léopold Simoneau will get me every time.

    Alternatives include the EMI 1977 set with Georges Prêtre, L'Opéra de Paris, Cotrubas, Vanzo, and Sarabia, and the EMI 1961 set with Dervau, L'Opéra Comique, Micheau, Gedda, and Blanc.

    There is only one video of this opera, which I also own. 2004, Live, La Fenice, Marcello Viotti. It is an OK version. Not bad, really, with some vocal failures and not the most stellar cast (many don't like Yasu Nakajima's Nadir - I don't think he is *that* terrible - Anick Massis is correct although I wish she were prettier - Luca Grassi and Luigi Didonato are correct). This version is good enough to add the visual aspects (by the always competent stage director Pier Luigi Pizzi) to this beautiful opera for those like me who have never been lucky enough to catch it live in the opera house, since it is so unfrequently given:


    Now, in our In Depth section, we have supplemented the information above with more details about this opera; especially, there is a lot of information on past and present singers of these roles, with video clips. So, now that you've read the basics above, click on this link below, which will take you to the In Depth article (or back to it, if you came here from that page). Make sure after you click, that you scroll down because most of the details in that article are below the short main text, in the Comments section:

    [click here for the second article, with more details about The Pearl Fishers]


    If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Anna Netrebko's, Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', tenor Jay Hunter Morris, and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among about 80 artists), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using our new clickable content index [here], or the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese).

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    Bookmark our site and come back for more - several new and exciting interviews are always coming to Opera Lively - recent ones have included composer Kevin Puts, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti and mezzo Magdalena Kozená (all three already published), the great veteran singer Frederica von Stade (already recorded, still to be transcribed), emerging soprano Jessica Pratt (also recorded, pending trancribing), and scheduled for the next few days, Diana Damrau, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Maestro Marco Armiliato, and Maestro Yannick Nézét-Séguin.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Beyond the Standard Repertoire: Les Pêcheurs de Perles started by Almaviva View original post

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