Two guys and a gal: “The Pearl Fishers”

February 27, 2015

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

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2 Responses to “Two guys and a gal: “The Pearl Fishers””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    As you probably have figured out, I’m not at all educated when it comes to opera, and it’s not something I listen to by choice on a Friday night. Still, this is truly beautiful. I far preferred the first version — and in fact added it to my favorites in YouTube. Llittle steps, and all that.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I’m not surprised that you prefer the Gigli-De Luca version. They were both practitioners of an effortless type of singing that did not strain the voice. It is especially suited to this duet. Gigli was quite a character, a womanizer and a Mussolini sympathizer, but that’s for another post.

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