Georges Bizet Les Pêcheurs de perles
Opera in three acts (1863)
Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré
Sung in French
with German and English surtitles
Duration of the opera approx. 2 hours 30 minutes
Print programme (PDF)
‘Never before have we heard anything sweeter, more mystic’, wrote a critic after the première in Paris of Les Pêcheurs de perles in October 1863, referring to the melody that would have embedded the name Bizet in popular musical memory even without Carmen. Intoned in thirds and sixths by Nadir and Zurga, it conjures up the fascination that the sight of a young priestess in the temple once had on the two men: both of them became inflamed with love, but for the sake of their friendship they vowed to renounce this love.
After a lengthy time apart, Zurga, who has just been nominated ‘king’ by the fishermen, and Nadir celebrate their reunion. They do not yet suspect the identity of the veiled woman who has been chosen according to ancient custom to pray for the fishermen and ward off evil spirits during the annual pearl-fishing expedition. When Nadir recognizes her as the never-forgotten ‘goddess’ from the temple, and Leïla – for such is her name – returns his love, thus breaking the strict vow that the high priest of Brahma demanded of her, the couple are soon in mortal danger.
As the setting for the love triangle the librettists at first chose Mexico, then Ceylon, hoping to reproduce the success of Félicien David’s ‘Indian’ opera Lalla-Roukh (1862). For the music, however, this invitation to exoticism did not contain any obligation to ethnographic authenticity. Foreign colouring was sufficient, and this Bizet gave to his score with skill and appeal in equal measure. Above all, Les Pêcheurs de perles constitutes early testimony of his eminent gift for musical theatre, which has nothing of the pathos of his teacher Gounod. Although the opera contains great passions and dramatic confrontations, Nietzsche’s praise for Carmen can already be applied to it: ‘This music… approaches lightly, limberly, politely. It is pleasant, it does not sweat.’