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THE PEARL FISHERS: HISTORY

THE PEARL FISHERS: HISTORY

BRAD COHEN, 20 SEPTEMBER

For this month’s blog, I thought I would share the following piece I created for the Royal Opera House’s performances of my Pearl Fishers edition in 2010. I hope it provides an interesting context for next month’s performances of our new production at His Majesty’s. And I hope very much to see you there!

Until next time

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Opera in 1860s Paris was both highly regulated and strictly segmented. Firstly, there was what Verdi called The Big Shop: the Opéra, where spectacular operas were performed, and where reputations and fortunes could be made. Verdi and Wagner, Donizetti and Meyerbeer all launched themselves at this barricade, with varying success. On the other hand there was the Opéra-Comique, where traditional French operas were performed, where melody and lightness of touch were desirable, and where Auber was the emblematic composer. The Opéra was international, the Opéra-Comique French. The repertoires of both showed signs of stagnation, and in the 1840s there were proposals, by Berlioz amongst others, to establish a third operatic house in Paris. Young composers would be able to gain a first hearing, and operas which occupied the middle ground between opéra comique and grand opéra could be produced. In time, such a house was indeed established as the Théâtre-Lyrique, and in 1862 its Director was Léon Carvalho, an ex-baritone and impresario. Born in Mauritius, Carvalho’s first term as Director of the Théâtre-Lyrique had ended in 1860 in bankruptcy–his return in 1862 indicated that theatrical ambition was preferable to mediocrity, at least as far as the government was concerned.

In 1863 the government provided Carvalho with a subvention of 100,000 francs, for the annual production of a three-act opera by a Prix de Rome laureate who had not had an opera previously staged in Paris. Bizet’s own Prix de Rome stipend had ended the previous year. In April 1863 Carvalho commissioned Bizet to set a libretto entitled Léïla. Its locale was promptly changed from Mexico to Ceylon, equally exotic in the Parisian imagination. The librettists, Cormon and Carré, fused material from de Jouy’s libretto for La Vestale with a recently-published book on Ceylon by Octave Sachot. Hervé Lacombe observes that this latter book was an important source for Les Pêcheurs de perles. “It is all there: detailed descriptions of the pearl fishery and its attendant superstitions, of the locales (with rocks overlooking the sea, and a ruined temple) and of the huts built by the natives.”

Bizet’s contract stipulated a proposed première in mid-September 1863. Little is known of his working methods in composing the opera, although Gounod advised him not to seize on the first musical idea to occur to him, not to rush, and to try to compose numerous numbers in tandem, to ensure uniformity of style. The time pressure on Bizet–his first major opera, with a deadline approximately three months away–was eased by some self-borrowings from earlier material. For instance, the spectacular chorus “Brahma, divin Brahma” began life as a Te Deum: both are invocations to a god, although the addressees differ. Other passages and motifs were taken from Don Procopio, Bizet’s Italian opera composed in Rome, Ivan IV, and an early cantata Clovis et Clotilde. None of these works, most of them unfinished, had been published or performed, so the material was to all intents new.

Bizet took particular care to provide the public with pieces in recognisable styles which they would appreciate. Nadir’s romance in Act One and Léïla’s air in Act Two, which remain two of the most famous pieces within the opera, fulfil these expectations perfectly. Less conventional was Bizet’s decision to dispense with spoken dialogue between numbers, and to replace it with orchestrally-accompanied recitatives. This had the effect of making the opera a grand opéra, an altogether more ambitious statement on Bizet’s part. As  Johannès Weber observed at the time, “Les Pêcheurs de perles is nothing less than a grand opéra, not only because spoken dialogue is replaced throughout by recitative, but also because there is absolutely nothing to laugh at in the piece, not a single comic character, and because the authors of both the text and the music were aiming at grand dramatic effects.” Moreover, Bizet’s symphonic use of the orchestra attracted adverse comment. Its harmonic daring, as well as the volume and range of the orchestration, led many critics to comment on its inappropriateness for a debutant’s opera. One name was repeatedly invoked: Wagner, whose Tannhäuser had been heard in Paris in 1860. Bizet was repeatedly accused of wagnerisme at this time, although precisely what this meant was not spelt out by his critics. In traditional opéra comique, the accessible melody supported by an obedient orchestral accompaniment was thought to be essentially French, in contrast to Wagner’s ‘chaotic’ style. Bizet’s advanced harmonic and orchestral writing, in his first opera for the Parisian stage, marked him as ambitious and self-confident, if not downright subversive. This impression was reinforced for many when he took the unusual step of appearing before the curtain at the close of the première to acknowledge applause.

In fact the history of Les Pêcheurs de perles, from its commissioning to its performance, was rather unusual for its time. Not only did the debutant Bizet enjoy the confidence of Carvalho in commissioning the opera, he had the benefit of two well-established librettists and three of the finer singers in Paris for his principals. This support, as Marie Escudier commented at the time, was exceptional: Carvalho was presenting “the work of a virtually unknown composer at great expense, and with as much care as would be devoted to a work of Meyerbeer or Auber.” Some writers felt that Bizet was being given unwarranted prominence. When the opera reached the stage, and its dramatic weaknesses and musical unevenness were exposed, these critics rejoiced in the chance to cavil at the opera’s shortcomings. In the words of Gustave Bertrand in Le Ménestrel: “it is a grand opera in four [sic] acts, a heavy burden for a debutant, and it appears that M. Bizet has faltered under the load, for the last scene was well below the standard of the first…There is too much shrieking in this score”. Bizet himself, in later years, spoke dismissively of Les Pêcheurs de perles to Edmond Galabert, while nonetheless saying that he was “pleased to have been able to write a few of its passages at so young an age”.

It is clear today that Les Pêcheurs de perles contains an abundance of beautiful, dramatic and intimate music, and the elevation of the Nadir-Zurga duet in Act One to a modern hit is testament to its power. Its weaknesses may be largely attributed to a poorly-motivated scenario, where the story is dependent on events – the first encounter with Léïla in Candy, the oaths of reunciation – which happen before the curtain rises. If there is a sense of Bizet’s musical invention faltering in Act Three, it can be ascribed not only to the pressure of time but to a certain irresolution in the ending of the story. In the opera’s final moments, Zurga remains alone on stage as the lovers escape, and his fate is unknown. This ending seems to have been a subject of discussion during rehearsals, and it is possible that in the course of production it was never satisfactorily resolved.

Carvalho had a reputation as an inveterate fiddler with works produced under his ægis. T.J. Walsh writes that “[Carvalho] began his career in Paris singing lesser baritone roles at the Opéra-Comique, and it may have been the frustrated ambitions of a singer manqué which later made him persist in trying to alter opera by new composers which he presented at the Théâtre-Lyrique”. Lacombe comments that “Not only did [Carvalho] interfere with composers’ work, he even imposed changes during rehearsals”. The vocal score which Bizet prepared and published in 1864 contains the opera as he wrote it. The conductor’s score used in performances, however, indicates numerous cuts, which must have been made during rehearsals and performances. Some of these cut repeated sections, while others seem to have been made to avoid particularly demanding writing (for instance for the chorus in the finale of Act Two).

But these cuts were nothing compared to the indignities Les Pêcheurs de perles suffered after Bizet’s death. When Carmen took the operatic world by storm, after a shaky start, Bizet’s publishers Choudens realised that they held other works by Bizet which were ripe for exploitation. Unfortunately, Bizet himself died shortly after the première of Carmen, leaving his legacy in the hands of a less-than-committed widow and a none-too-scrupulous publisher. After numerous performances in Italian translation during the 1880s, Carvalho himself mounted a revival of Les Pêcheurs de perles in Paris in 1893. No longer hampered by the presence of a composer, Carvalho (we assume) mutilated the opera in keeping with his own and contemporary taste, commissioning new numbers and sections from an uncredited Benjamin Godard, extensively altering the narrative (particularly Act Three, which now ended with Zurga’s death in the best Grand Guignol fashion), and deforming the Nadir-Zurga duet with a reprise of the Big Tune. As Michel Poupet observed in 1965, this last change was especially nonsensical – the dramatic purpose of this duet is the renunciation of Léïla for the sake of male friendship, yet in the mutilated 1893 version, her theme returns as the duet’s concluding peroration.

This, in Poupet’s words, “mauvaise” version of the opera was published in full and vocal scores by Choudens. Until Poupet’s trenchant article appeared, the Choudens scores were commonly accepted as representing Bizet’s intentions. Winton Dean pursued the subject of what increasingly appeared as a scandalous misprepresentation of Bizet’s work in a series of books and articles, and in 1975 the French music specialist Arthur Hammond used Bizet’s 1864 vocal score to create a performing edition for Welsh National Opera. This was the first faithful representation of Bizet’s intentions for the opera since the première in 1863. Unfortunately, the full score was (and remains) lost, so the passages in Bizet’s original which diverged from the corrupt Choudens full score had to be orchestrated by Hammond from scratch.

A further stage of reconciliation with Bizet’s wishes was made possible by the discovery of the 1863 conducting score in the archives of the Opéra-Comique. This score, on six staves and with detailed indications of orchestration, exactly parallels Bizet’s 1864 vocal score. Hervé Lacombe drew attention to the existence of this conducting score in his important book on the opera, and made his own reconstruction of the missing orchestrations in association with Editions Choudens. When I first conducted Les Pêcheurs de perles for Opera North in 1995, the traditional Choudens performing materials provided were clearly not fit for purpose, with many significant errors and discrepancies between score and parts. Lacombe’s research encouraged me to make a new complete critical edition of the opera for London performances in 2002, using Bizet’s 1864 vocal score and the 1863 conducting score as my principal sources. The 1863 conducting score has such detailed orchestral indications that reconstruction of the missing sections was straightforward.

My edition, which you will hear, represents for the time being the closest approximation to Bizet’s original work. The re-discovery of Bizet’s autograph full score would close the circle perfectly, but in view of the fact that many of Bizet’s autographs were dismembered after his death, given away as mementoes and gifts by his widow, such a discovery seems unlikely.

The editorial history of Les Pêcheurs de perles can be viewed as an elliptical trajectory, in which the composer’s original intentions were clearly expressed in both orchestral and vocal scores, documenting a run of eighteen performances over two months in 1863. In 1864, after publishing his own vocal score, Bizet’s active involvement with Les Pêcheurs de perles ceased. The infidelities and mutilations imposed on the opera after his death have demonstrably nothing to do with either him or his intentions. The return to an authentic musical and literary text of Les Pêcheurs de perles honours not only Bizet; it also mirrors a gradual and welcome rehabilitation in the respect accorded to nineteenth-century French opera, a form which Lacombe observes “suffers on the whole from a poor reputation”.

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Brad Cohen
Artistic Director