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FWO Archives: Georges Bizet's Stunning Classic, 'The Pearl Fishers' (2014 Festival)

Against the watery setting of ancient tropical Ceylon, vows of eternal friendship are put to the ultimate test in this story of desire and sacrifice. Two fishermen, Nadir and Zurga, are plunged into the depths of a forbidden love triangle when a mysterious woman from their past, Leïla, returns and ignites a jealous rivalry.


Act I - A seashore in Ceylon

A group of pearl fishermen and their families sing of the dangerous task they are about to face ("Sur la grѐve en feu") and perform ritual dances to drive away evil spirits. Zurga enters and reminds them it is time to select a leader, and they choose him as their king. The people agree to give him absolute power. Nadir appears and is greeted warmly by Zurga as his long-lost friend. Zurga asks Nadir to stay and become one of them and Nadir agrees.

Lee Poulis (Zurga) and Justin Hopkins (Nourabad) with the chorus of 'The Pearl Fishers.' Photo by Karen Almond.

Left alone, the two men recall how their rivalry over a beautiful priestess named Leïla almost destroyed their friendship, and how they both renounced their love for her in order to save it - a vow they reaffirm to each other ("Au fond du temple saint"). They are interrupted by the arrival of a boat carrying a veiled, virgin priestess who is coming to pray and ward off evil spirits for the sake of fishermen while they are at sea. The high priest Nourabad escorts her while she is welcomed by the people. The woman is Leïla, and as Zurga explains her duty to her, she recognizes Nadir but says nothing. Instead, she swears to Zurga that that she will remain ve iled and chaste, and he explains that if she does, she will receive the finest pearl found.

The priestess Leïla (Hailey Clark), Nourabad (Justin Hopkins), and Zurga (Lee Poulis); photo by Karen Almond.

However, if she breaks her oath, she will die. Despite her vei l, Nadir knows she is Leïla, and after Nourabad leads her away to the temple and the people depart. Nadir recounts how he broke his word to Zurga by pursuing her here ("Je crois entendre encore"). He falls asleep while Nourabad positions Leïla on the rock where she is to remain during her vigil. Now alone, Leïla prays and sings. Nadir wakes and follows the sound of her voice. As her veil falls aside, Nadir and Leïla declare their passion for each other while in the distance the fishermen plead with her to continue protecting them, but she tells Nadir she will sing for him alone ("O Dieu Brahma").


Act II - That evening, in front of the temple

Sean Panikkar as Nadir. Photo by Karen Almond.

With the fishermen safely home for the night, Nourabad tells Leïla that she will spend the night alone in the temple. She is fearful, but the high priest assures her that if she keeps her vow to be pure nothing will happen to her. Leïla tells him a story of her bravery as a child. She hid a fugitive and did not turn him over to his enemies even when she was threatened with a dagger (''j'etais encore enfant"). The fugitive rewarded her with a necklace. Nourabad reminds her that Zurga has made her responsible for the people's welfare and leaves the temple.

Alone, Leïla remembers how Nadir used to watch over her, and she senses his presence ("Comme autrefois"). When he appears, she pleads with him to leave so she can keep her vow. Nadir exclaims his love for her, and she says that her heart has always understood his heart ("Leïla! Leïla!. . .Dieu puissant, le voila! "). They part with a promise to meet again the next night believing that no one has seen them, but Nourabad has. He orders Nadir arrested. The villagers are roused and together with the high priest they call for the lovers' death. Zurga enters as Nadir fights to protect Leïla, and he reminds the people that he is their leader and they must obey his commands. He chooses to show the pair mercy until Nourabad tears the veil from Lela's face. Finally recognizing Leila and realizing that Nadir has betrayed his vow, Zurga swears revenge and orders their death. A violent storm erupts and the people sing to Brahma for his protection ("Brahma divin Brahma!").

Hailey Clark as Leïla and Lee Poulis as Zurga in 'The Pearl Fishers.' Photo by Karen Almond.

Act Ill - Scene 1 - Zurga's tent

Zurga regrets condemning his old friend because of his jealous rage ("O Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge"). Leïla comes to Zurga and begs him to spare Nadir's life. Zurga is enchanted by her beauty, and at first believes her claim that Nadir found her by chance, giving Zurga the opening to pardon Nadir. However, once he realizes that she is in love with Nadir, Zurga's fury is rekindled and he confirms that the couple will die together. As she is led away, Leïla gives her necklace to a young fisherman and asks that it be sent to her mother. Zurga recognizes the necklace as the one he gave to the girl who saved his life when he was a fugitive.

Hailey Clark as the priestess Leïla in 'The Pearl Fishers'; photo by Karen Almond.

Scene 2 - Place of Execution

The villagers sing and perform a frenzied dance in anticipation of the execution while Nadir tries to think of a way to save Leïla. Reunited next to the funeral pyre, the lovers serenely await death in each other's arms. As the light in the sky begins to turn red, Nourabad claims dawn is coming, but Zurga rushes in announcing that the village is on fire and they must hurry to save their children. Momentarily alone with the lovers, Zurga admits to them that he set the fire and breaks their chains. Showing Leïla the necklace, Zurga tells her that she saved his life and to repay her, he is now setting them free. Nadir and Leïla run away together, leaving Zurga behind to face the angry villagers.

Director of the Fort Worth Opera Studio and Education, Hannah Guinn earned her master's in musicology and bachelor's in vocal performance from Texas Christian University. Before joining FWOpera in 2008, she worked for the Van Cliburn Foundation, where among other duties, she was editor for all their printed materials.


Bizet and The Pearl Fishers

Nourabad (Justin Hopkins); photo by Karen Almond.

When a certain Count Walewski established a stipend for a new three-act opera by a recent Prix de Rome laureate, León Carvalho, director of the Theâtre Lyrique, commissioned the libretto for a new opera before he even knew who would be chosen as the composer. As a result, librettists Michael Carré and Eugѐne Cormon started to work on an opera, Leila, to be set in Mexico.

Eventually, Bizet was selected as the recipient of the stipend. He was then working on another opera, La guzla de l'emir, but he dropped that to take on the more prestigious assignment. La guzla was never finished. The music has been lost, but Bizet used some of it in The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles). He worked steadily during the summer in spite of the advice he received from his fellow composer and mentor, Charles Gounod.

Sean Panikkar as Nadir; photo by Karen Almond.

Meanwhile, the French Emperor Napoleon Ill withdrew his support from Maximilian, the Austrian Emperor of Mexico. Taking the hint, the locale for the opera was changed from Mexico to the more "exotic" Ceylon, but Leïla remained the title until two weeks before the opening.

The story gave a good deal of trouble. While it was original, the tale of the virgin priestess who forsakes her vows had already been told in Bellini's Norma and Spontini's La Vestale. The libretto was not completely finished until a few days before the premiere; the librettists, who apparently did not hear any of the music before the final orchestra rehearsals, could not agree on the ending. In despair, Carvalho is said to have exclaimed, "Throw it on the fire!" This gave them the idea for the fire in the third act. Then the opening had to be delayed for a month because the soprano was sick.

Lee Poulis and Hailey Clark; photo by Karen Almond.

The opera finally played for 18 performances, but although admired by both Berlioz and Halevy, it was not well received by the critics who characterized the libretto as poor, the music as quite good. Cormon and Carré said that if they had realized Bizet's talent, they would have written a better book. Bizet himself said it was, "A failure in short, honorable and brilliant, ... but nevertheless a failure." Still, the story is told of the composer Saint-Saëns trying to go to Bizet's house one day. When he couldn't find it he started loudly to sing Nadir's aria "Je crois entendre" until its composer heard it and came to his rescue.

The Pearl Fishers did not reappear until 1886 after Bizet's death. Meanwhile the original orchestral score had been lost. The vocal score was the only re liable source. So the changes started! Cuts and additions were made; some of the music used was by not even by Bizet. There are now several versions of the ending.

The Music of The Pearl Fishers

Lee Poulis (Zurga), Sean Panikkar (Nadir) and Hailey Clark (Leïla); photo by Karen Almond.

The music of Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) will forever be compared to Bizet's Carmen. Carmen is extraordinary in every way: the musical characterizations approach the work of the mature Mozart or middle-period Verdi, melodic interest never wanes, the libretto is filled with human truth, the dramatic structure is as solid as any opera written before or since, it is brilliantly orchestrated, and it is virtually indestructible. Carmen is what every opera composer strives to achieve in terms of authentic music drama. On top of all that, while it endures as one of the three or four most popular operas in the repertoire, its tunes have entered the consciousness of people from every strata of society, in virtually every country in the world.

But Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (his sixth opera by most accounts, although only his second staged work) is full of treasures unique to the piece. There is no lack of melodic interest. There is, of course, the "big tune,'' the climax of the first act duet between Zurga and Nadir, "Au fond du temple saint." There are other moments which are just as memorable: Nadir's romance "Je crois entendre encore,'' Leïla's aria "Comme autrefois" (so reminiscent of Micaela's aria in Carmen), Nadir and Leïla's second act duet, and Zurga's aria "O Nadir." While not the steady stream of hits that makes up the fabric of Carmen, it is still a remarkable outpouring for a composer so young in the business of writing opera.

The cast and chorus of 'The Pearl Fishers'; photo by Karen Almond.

Perhaps what captured the first audience's imagination in 1863 is also what keeps the piece alive today: its exoticism. There are elements in the music that make it very much a part of the mid to late nineteenth century aesthetic that looked to the Middle or Far East for inspiration. (This was a typically French preoccupation, even from the earliest epoch of French operatic writing, e.g. Rameau's Les lndes go/antes.) Certainly there is the requisite battery of percussion instruments in order to communicate local color, including cymbals, kettledrums, and tambourine. But exoticism is also expressed through the heavy ornamentation of certain instrumental and vocal lines. The oboe introduction to Nadir's appearance in the second act is a case in point, as is Leïla's recitative in the same act and her incantation to Siva at the end of Act I. Although Bizet didn't seek ethnic authenticity to the point that Puccini did in Butterfly and Turandot, The Pearl Fishers still succeeds as an early example of exoticism, and audiences' expectations are as much fulfilled by this work as by Delibes' Lakmé or Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila.

Hailey Clark (Leïla); photo by Karen Almond.

The barriers that normally exist between numbers and recitative in French opera at this time are broken down by Bizet using various means, perhaps most interestingly through the use of fully developed melodies that carry the ear from recitative to aria or ensemble. This makes the opera move quickly and gives a greater intensity to the drama. In this way, The Pearl Fishers has it over Carmen since the music for the recitatives for the later opera weren't written by Bizet but by Guiraud. The sense of drive and melodic interest in the recitative portions of The Pearl Fishers, however, effectively sets it apart from its contemporaries.

The Setting of The Pearl Fishers: Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

The pear-shaped island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, lies thirty miles off the tip of India. Nothing is known of the earliest Stone Age inhabitants who may have reached there from India over "Adam's Bridge," which according the Ramayana then connected it to the mainland. In about the sixth or fifth century BC, lndo-Aryan people came to the island from northern India, the precursors of the present-day Sinhalese. According to legend, they were led by King Vijaya who was born of a lion (simha) and a princess. The word simha became their name, the Sinhalese. From the third century BC on, waves of Tamils arrived from southern India.

The cast and chorus of Fort Worth Opera's 2014 Festival production of 'The Pearl Fishers'; photo by Karen Almond.

The second century BC epic, the Ramayana, tells how Rama conquered the island. In Book 10, we read how Rama crossed over with his army from India to Ceylon. The town of Lanka, the capital of Ceylon, was invested, and war followed. Every chief was killed, except the king, Ravan. He and Rama fought, Ravan was killed and the war ended.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba knew the island as the source of gems. Some believe that Galle in the south is the site of the seaport of Tarshish from which King Solomon drew his "ivory, apes and peacocks.'' The Greeks and Romans believed the island was a utopia at the eastern end of its world; Ptolemy called it Traprobane. Sinbad the Sailor was shipwrecked there on his sixth voyage and told of the many jewels. The Arab traders called it Serendib and in a Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Seredip" made many discoveries on the island and led Horace Walpole to coin the word serendipity.

Lee Poulis (Zurga) and Sean Panikkar (Nadir); photo by Karen Almond.

By the tenth century AD, Tamils had settled most of northern Ceylon, and they destroyed the ancient capital Anwarhapura in the eleventh century. (There is a 2,250 year-old sacred bo tree in Anwarhapura, supposedly from a branch of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment.) By the thirteenth century, the Tamils had conquered the Sinhalese and taken control of the pearl fisheries.

While the setting of the The Pearl Fishers is in "ancient times," it had to be after the invention of the hand-gun and before the conquest by the Portuguese. Under the early native kings, each village had a large measure of autonomy and chose its own headman or "king" like Zurga in the opera. The first handguns were used at the end of the fifteenth century and would have taken a while to reach this remote island in the Indian Ocean. Thus, if the librettists had paid any attention at all to historical accuracy, the events of the opera must have taken place about AD 1500. However, the opera was originally set in Mexico and moved to Ceylon shortly before its premiѐre. There was no time for research. The temple at Kandy is the country's most famous shrine, so it is there that Zurga and Nadir swear their friendship. The temple did not exist at the time and is about 200 miles from the pearl beds. Most important, it is a Buddhist shrine while Zurga and Nadir are Hindus. But historical accuracy is unimportant in the context of one of the most beautiful male duets in all opera.

The chorus of Fort Worth Opera's 'The Pearl Fishers;' photo by Karen Almond.

Program Notes by Dr. Nicolas Reveles, San Diego Opera


Music by Georges Bizet

Libretto by Eugѐne Cormon and Michel Carré

Sung in French

CONDUCTOR Joe lllick











The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance

ZURGA Lee Poulis*

NADIR Sean Panikkar

LEÏLA Hailey Clark

NOURABAD Justin Hopkins

Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

*Debut Season

Presented in two acts with one intermisson.


Photos by Karen Almond

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