Recorded on 07/16/2012, uploaded on 07/16/2012
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
In his early twenties, Bizet found himself struggling in the French capital to jumpstart his career as a composer of opera. For a young composer, opportunities in Paris were rare, particularly at the two state-subsidized opera houses. The Paris Opéra thrived on works by Rossini and Meyerbeer and consequently allowed little else to be performed. The Opéra-Comique, though more open to works by French composers, was equally uninterested in works by up-and-coming artists. However, it was by law required to occasionally staged one-act operas by past Prix de Rome winners. By this stipulation, Bizet was able to get his foot in the door with a one-act opera titled La guzla de l’Emir.
After rehearsals of La guzla had started, Bizet was approached by the manager of the privately-owned Théatre Lyrique, Léon Carvalho, with a commission for a three-act opera. Carvalho had great faith in young Bizet’s potential and offered him, Le pêcheurs de perles (“The Pearl Fishers”), a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. Sensing a greater success with Carvalho’s offer, Bizet enthusiastically accepted. In doing so, however, he was forced to withdraw La guzla from the Opéra-Lyrique, which required the works to be by composers who had not yet been performed commercially.
When Le pêcheurs de perles premiered on September 30, 1863, it was received warmly by the audience and Bizet was even called out after the performances. Critics, however, were not of the same opinion. All except Hector Berlioz, who recognized Bizet’s burgeoning talent, condemned the work for both its weak libretto and its music. As to the former, critical opinion has not changed much. Essentially based on two men’s love for the same woman, the libretto is weighed down by a stock plot and superficial characters that simply meet the base requirements for opera. Even the librettists recognized the story’s weaknesses and admitted that had they been more aware of Bizet’s talent, they would’ve worked harder to give him a better libretto. On the other hand, opinion of Bizet’s music has changed over time. Though Le pêcheurs de perles has never, and will never, achieve the beloved status of Carmen, Bizet’s melodic talent and cunning handling of the orchestra are apparent in the score. After its initial run, Le pêcheurs de perles remained unperformed until eleven years after the composer’s death when it was revived at La Scala in Milan. Since then it has entered the standard repertoire.
Undoubtedly the opera’s most popular number and the only one to gain considerable respect of its own is the duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Act I. Zurga and Nadir, two fishermen, reminisce how their friendship had nearly ended over their love for a beautiful stranger. The stranger is the priestess Leila whose duty now is to protect the fisherman as they go to see, though neither yet know of her presence. Having sworn off their love, Zurga and Nadir pledge anew their friendship. The music of the duet is dignified and stately, as well as somewhat solemn in its praise of friendship. Its theme becomes a central idea throughout the opera, recurring later in a leitmotif-like manner. Joseph DuBose
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