HANAN ALATTAR and ALFIE BOE in a production of

HANAN ALATTAR and ALFIE BOE in a production of “The Pearl Fishers” at the English National Opera.

I was happy to see that the Metropolitan Opera’s lineup for the 2015-2016 season includes Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) which has not been seen at the Met since Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempl sang it in 1916. Most opera buffs I know have never seen this opera performed, and I have seen it only once—at the late and lamented New York City Opera. This was a relatively early composition of Georges Bizet who ten years later made his indelible mark with Carmen. I’m in the “I know what I like” category of opera fans and no expert. What I read is that the music in The Pearl Fishers betrays the uncertainty of Bizet’s youth (he was 25 years old at the time), but that the libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré was so poor as to be laughable. Apparently, even they thought so.
GEORGES BIZET
The work was introduced in Paris with 18 performances in 1863; the public loved it, but the critics didn’t. Some of Bizet’s contemporaries in music did find some merit in the score. The Pearl Fishers wasn’t mounted again until after Bizet’s untimely death in 1875, but it eventually became a popular piece, mostly because—whatever its shortcomings—the melodies and orchestrations are infectious. In fact, the tenor and baritone have a duet in the first act that is one of the most popular pieces of operatic music. This duet is called “Au fond du temple saint”—in Italian, “Del tempio al limitar.” The story involves two men, Nadir and Zurga who reunite in Ceylon after Nadir had been absent for some time. These men had once been in love with the same woman, but had promised each other that they both would renounce her so as to preserve their own friendship. In this duet, the men speak dreamily about the beauty of this woman, but then they reaffirm the promise they had made. This is in the first act, so the reader can imagine what comes next.
I never get tired of this duet, which I had heard many times before I ever saw the opera. The beauty of the melody and the blending of the voices reach some sublime level of artistry. I once gave a recording of the Italian version of this duet to the artistic director of a major theater here in New Jersey, and he later told me that he wept when he first listened to it. That had never happened to me, but I understood.
My favorite recording of this duet is by Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe De Luca. You can hear it by clicking HERE.

You can hear Count John McCormack and the baritone Mario Sammarco sing it by clicking HERE.

A somewhat more contemporary performance, sung in the original French by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, is HERE.

GIUSEPPE DE LUCA, FREIDA HEMPL, and ENRICO CARUSO in

GIUSEPPE DE LUCA, FREIDA HEMPL, and ENRICO CARUSO in “The Pearl Fishers,” 1916

The first known publication of the Welsh carol "Nos Galan"

The first known publication of the Welsh carol “Nos Galan”

Pete Seeger said during a concert at Carnegie Hall that when he was thrashing around for a melody for “Sailing Down My Golden River” he got started by using the first eight notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” He wasn’t taking too much of a chance. The melody belongs to a sixteenth-century Welsh carol, “Nos Galan,” and has long since passed into the public domain. The popular Christmas song that uses the same music first appeared in 1862.
I recalled Pete’s remark the other day when some folks were getting on Sam Smith’s case for not acknowledging Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne while accepting a Grammy for “Stay With Me,” the “song of the year.” When that song was released last April, many people noticed a similarity to “I Won’t Back Down,” which was huge for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1989. Petty’s people saw Smith’s people and the parties settled out of court last October. Petty and Lynne are both to get writing credit, along with Smith and Jimmy Napes.

GEORGE HARRISON

GEORGE HARRISON

It seems that no one thinks Smith deliberately plagiarized Petty’s song; with so many people listening to so much music, some subliminal appropriation is almost bound to happen. Even the court thought that was the case when George Harrison’s 1971 hit “My Sweet Lord” drew immediate comparisons to Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963.The similarity resulted in complicated litigation that lasted from 1971 to 1998. Harrison was eventually directed to pay damages of $587,000—half of an earlier award—and he received rights to the song. As for the notion of unconscious plagiarism, there were some skeptics, including John Lennon, who told a Playboy interviewer: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that … He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”

GIACOMO PUCCINI

GIACOMO PUCCINI

My favorite incident of this kind—because of the strange juxtaposition of genres—involved the operatic composer Giacomo Puccini and the American entertainer Al Jolson. The trouble started with the 1920 publication of the popular song “(I Found My Love in) Avalon,” which was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. The lyric referred to the city of Avalon, which is located on Catalina Island in California. The following year, Puccini’s publishers sued Jolson and his collaborators on the grounds that the first few chords of “Avalon” were virtually identical to the first few chords of “E lucevan le stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. I’m very familiar with both compositions, and I never noticed the similarity until I read about the lawsuit. But a judge with a more sensitive ear awarded Puccini $25,000 in damages and all subsequent royalties from “Avalon,” which has been recorded dozens of times.
Al_Jolson_Avalon_cover