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21st February 1999
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The setting of an exotic opera

Richard Boyle finds out how Bizet's famous opera 'The Pearl Fishers' came to be located in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been the setting for a variety of artistic creations by individuals from beyond these shores. Such creations include novels, poems, paintings and photographs, documentary and feature films - and even a famous opera, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

Although I have mentioned The Pearl Fishers before, primarily in connection with the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, these references have been in passing. Now seems as good a time as any to examine this opera, and how it came to be set here, in more detail. 

Bizet, the composer as seen in a sketch reproduced in the English National Opera programme.Georges Bizet was born in France in 1838. A child prodigy, he was admitted to the renowned Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of nine. It was natural that he achieved great distinction as a music student, yet his professional career did not begin promisingly. He received no commissions and he later disowned his earliest operatic essays, such as Le Docteur Miracle (1856) and Don Precopio (1859).

Leon Carvalho, the opera-manager of the distinguished Theatre-Lyrique in Paris, was one person who did recognise Bizet's talent. In the spring of 1863, Carvalho asked the 24-year-old composer to complete a three-act opera set in an exotic location that would go into rehearsal in August, with an anticipated premiere in mid-September. Despite the fact that Bizet was irked at the short period of time made available to him, he had little option but to accept this all-important first commission.

From the very beginning of operatic history in the 17th century, opera stories invariably took place in far-off settings and faraway times. The French in particular were notorious for choosing exotic locations during the 19th century. So important was this element that French composers of operas had no say in the question of the setting. The composer was at the mercy of the opera-manager and the opera-manager was, in turn, at the mercy of audiences. They demanded to see something lavish and out of the ordinary, such as Massenet's The King of Lahore and Fericio David's The Pearl of Brazil.

In his article "Bizet's Folly" (Serendib, Vol.1 No.3 July 1982), Harry Rolnick wrote how the playwright George Bernard Shaw had once described what always seemed to transpire when an opera-manager in France brought together two opera librettists to discuss a project:

'The opera-manager would insist that they include in the opera a) one noble slave; b) one vestal virgin (with an option of a chorus of vestal virgins); c) one scene in India and/or South America; d) one massacre; e) one pair of ill-fated lovers; and f) one priest of a religious cult."

In this instance, the opera-manager Carvalho brought together his two favourite librettists, Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon, to write a story using a similar formula to that reported by Shaw. They came up with a typical example of romantic twaddle that was set in Mexico around a pearl fishing community. The characters were originally American Indians, but in the end they were deemed to be too unbelievable. 

So the setting was transposed to Ceylon - presumably because it had a pearl fishery - and the American Indians became itinerant divers from India. The following is a synopsis of the libretto that Carre and Cormon wrote for Bizet:

Location: A Pearl Fishing Encampment on a Beach in North-West Ceylon Time: The Distant Past. The pearl fishers are preparing for the new fishing season and choose Zurga as their leader. They await the consecrated Virgin, whose singing will charm the demons of the deep and ward off the evil spirits of the storm.

Meanwhile, Nadir returns to the island and is recognised by Zurga. In the past they have been close friends. They recall the night in "front of the gates of Kandy" when they had seen a woman whose beauty captured both their hearts and almost led to their falling out. 

Instead, they had promised each other, for the sake of their friendship, to give up any thought of her. Leila, the Virgin chosen for her purity from all the temples of the island, arrives. Nourabad, the High Priest, accompanies her. Although Leila is veiled, Nadir recognises her voice as that of the woman he had met in Kandy. To ensure Leila's success, Zurga imposes an oath of chastity upon her on pain of death. Her reward for keeping the divers safe from harm will be their finest pearl.

Nadir listens as Leila begins her incantation. Finally he can resist no longer and calls up to her; she breaks off, answering his love. They are interrupted by Nourabad, who tells Leila that the fishermen have returned safely and that she can now sleep until morning in the sacred enclosure. Nourabad also stresses the importance of her vow. As a proof of her ability to keep her promise, she tells him how, as a little girl, she had protected a fugitive, who had given her a necklace as a token of his gratitude. Leila falls asleep dreaming of Nadir. 

He makes his way into the sacred enclosure and they are rapturously reunited. But the lovers are observed and, as a violent storm breaks overhead, they are captured and denounced for sacrilege by Nourabad. Zurga tries to protect his friend from the fury of the superstitious fishermen, but Nourabad whips up their frenzy and Leila's veil is torn from her. When Zurga recognises Leila, he sees that Nadir has betrayed their oath and angrily demands that they be put to death. Later, however, Zurga's wrath passes and he reflects on Nadir's fate. Leila pleads for her lover, saying that she alone was culpable. For the first time she sees that Zurga loves her too. Zurga relents at this point, but his jealousy is fanned when Leila reveals how much she loves Nadir. 

So he permits Nourabad to take her to the sacrificial pyre. Before Leila goes, however, she gives Zurga her necklace, asking that it be sent to her mother. Zurga recognises it as the necklace he had given years before to a young girl who had helped him while he was on the run. The pearl fishers prepare for the ritual deaths of Leila and Nadir, which are to take place as the sun rises. At the last moment Zurga intervenes with the news that the fishery encampment is on fire and that the women and children are in danger. When the pearl fishers hurriedly depart, Zurga reveals to the captives that it was he that Leila had saved so many years ago, and that now he must repay his debt of gratitude for her bravery. He explains that it was he who had set the camp ablaze in order to give them a chance to escape. Thanking Zurga, the lovers grasp the opportunity. Of course the opera has little to do with the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, due to the transposition of the location, as well as the ignorance or poetic licence of the librettists. (For instance, itinerant pearl fishermen were hardly likely to travel to Kandy.)

It is true that the divers were supposedly given protection from "the demons of the deep" by so-called shark-charmers, who used to recite incantations on the shore while the pearl divers were at work. However, the shark charmers were invariably men. And while one Hindu temple in particular received some of the proceeds of the fishery, I am not aware of any other fishery ritual associated with this temple.

To meet the tight schedule, Bizet had to borrow from several of his earlier works, including Ivan IV, which he had composed only the year before. Furthermore, he probably cannabalised most of his one-act opera comique, La Guzla du L'Emir. While the composer responded imaginatively to the setting in a Western way, had he employed Eastern rhythms, in particular those of the Sri Lankan percussion tradition, he might have created something even more extraordinary.

Although rehearsals began, as planned, in early August 1863, the libretto remained unfinished until a few days before the opening. But then the librettists seem never to have heard the music Bizet was composing until the orchestra rehearsals. Which is a pity, because one of the librettists, Eugene Cormon, later remarked that had he and his co-writer, Michel Carre, realised Bizet's talent, they would never have given him "that white elephant", as they termed their banal story.

Carre, who seems to have had the heady responsibility of being in charge of the plot, was unable to decide how to terminate the third act. During rehearsals he kept asking for suggestions, until finally Leon Carvalho said to him in exasperation one day, 'Throw it in the fire!' This remark was taken literally by Carre, who transferred it to the action of the opera. The Pearl Fishers had its premiere on September 30, 1863 at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris. It ran for eighteen performances, which was respectable for a debut work. The opera's reception, though, was largely negative, with the critics decrying its "noisiness" and overtly exotic flavour. One even described it as a misdirected search for originality. Furthermore, the young composer aroused much indignation among the fraternity of critics for having the audacity to appear on stage to take a curtain call.

Louis Jouvin, writing in Le Figaro, was one critic who blew hot and cold, realising that artistically, Bizet was at the mercy of the limitations of the libretto: "There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music. M. Georges Bizet, as a beginner, was condemned to accept gracefully the libretto of The Pearl Fishers. He has great assurance in the way he deals with the orchestra and mass vocal effects. But The Pearl Fishers betrays on every page, along with the talent of the composer, the bias of a school to which he belongs, that of Richard Wagner." There is little doubt that portions of The Pearl Fishers are indebted to other composers. Apart from the influence of Wagner, critics of the period cited that of Gounod, David, Halevy and Verdi, among others.

Some critics, however, had unstinting praise. One such was the eminent composer Hector Berlioz, who saw the opera three times. He realised that The Pearl Fishers was, in its own way, a masterpiece, even though it was a flawed one. In his last critique before his death Berlioz wrote:

"The score of this opera had a real success. It includes a considerable number of beautiful expressive pieces full of fire and rich colouring. The rhythms are one of the things one doesn't dare write nowadays. The score of The Pearl Fishers does M. Bizet the greatest honour, and he will have to be recognised as a composer." Another well-known composer, Fromental Halevy, was similarly impressed: "The score is of superior quality. There is in this work an assurance, a calm, an uneasy, powerful handling of the choruses and the orchestra, which certainly announce a composer. The score is greatly criticised, widely discussed. After listening to this work three times, I persist in finding in it the rarest virtues." In 1867 Bizet referred to his debut work as "an opera much discussed, attacked, defended; in all an honourable, brilliant failure." 

He correctly assessed his first two acts as stronger than his third and his lyric passages and exotic numbers as more successful than the uneven dramatic portions. Yet despite the score's unevenness, its lyrical beauty and unforgettable moments have won it a place in the standard repertoire. Bizet never regretted The Pearl Fishers' lack of popularity, as he went on to compose perhaps the finest opera of all time, Carmen, in 1874. Even the initial response to Carmen was disappointing, though. Its almost violent plot, based around a girl working in a cigarette factory, caused much controversy and it played to half-empty houses when it opened in 1875. Bizet's colourful orchestration and direct tunes started to cause a stir, however, and soon the opera took off, becoming a worldwide hit over the next twenty years. It has been remarked that one of the great paradoxes of musical history is that the shy, gentle, bespectacled Bizet was the creator of Carmen, the story of the sensuous and tempestuous gypsy woman whose life, riddled with crime and violence, ended in one of the most dramatic of all stage murders.

Bizet had the unfortunate knack of doing what composers especially seem to do best: write masterpieces which are ignored, then just as the public begins to recognise their genius, they die prematurely. His death at the age of thirty-six, just three months after the first performance of Carmen, was poor timing for both Parisians and the history of opera. But it did mean that demand was created for a revival of his earlier work, in particular The Pearl Fishers. There have been several revivals of The Pearl Fishers in recent years, most notably, perhaps, by the English National Opera during its 1993/1994 season. My sister and her husband, both ardent opera buffs, were fortunate enough to see this revival and naturally conserved the progamme.

The progamme, which is a lavish one, is of great interest as it features a number of excellent and little known photographs of Ceylon circa 1875, as well as beautiful reproductions of 19th century paintings by Capt. Charles O'Brien and by the not so familiar Irish soldier, Patrick Lysaght. Handsome though they are, none of these illustrations has any relevance to the pearl fishery. This is strange, because down the centuries there has been no shortage of visual representations of the pearl fishery.

Few remember today that Bizet was an outstanding pianist and orchestral composer in addition to possessing considerable talent in the operatic sphere. The fate of his Symphony in C (1855) sums up the cruel manner in which critical acclaim eluded him during his lifetime. Although it is now a standard orchestral piece, this symphony languished in a music library from the time that Bizet composed it at the age of seventeen, until 1933, when it was rediscovered and immediately hailed as a classic.

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