Probably forever condemned to live in the shadow of its better-known sister Carmen, The Pearl Fishers is nevertheless a work of considerable inspiration and one which is certainly worthy of the loving treatment given to it by Chandos in this new release.
As Richard Langham Smith points out in his excellent liner note, the piece belongs to the Zeitgeist that inspired Massenet's Thaïs, Delibes' Lakmé, and Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila: exotic operas strongly flavoured by the atmosphere of the Orient.
Yet the brilliance of Bizet's score is the way that he uses the Otherness of the story – and the Ceylon setting – for background colour, rather than being ruled by it. At heart, this is the story of a simple love triangle, with a kind of Camelot-type twist: two best friends (Zurga and Nadir) love the same woman (Leïla) and both agree to renounce their love for her rather than let it come in the way of their friendship. But when Leïla and Nadir are reunited their love cannot be ignored; Zurga discovers them together and orders their execution. However, it transpires that many years earlier Leïla had saved Zurga's life when he was being pursued, so at the last minute Zurga creates a diversion and allows Leïla and Nadir to go free.
Put like that, it's clear that the story is about human relationships and emotions rather than life in an exotic community. Nevertheless, the fact that the opera is set on an island in the Indian Ocean whose inhabitants make a living by diving for pearls, and that Leïla is the high priestess of Brahma, means that it lends itself to many of the mysterious flavours with which Bizet also coloured the score of Carmen. There are some weak spots where both music and libretto sound slightly prosaic, especially when rendered in English as it is here. The prime instance of this for me is the brief chorus in the opening scene, No. 1b, when the fishermen sing, 'The man we want to be our master / and we will choose to take command, / Zurga, dear friend, Zurga, dear friend, is you!', to which Zurga replies, 'Who, me?'. This is all a bit too jaunty and silly for my taste, but most of the extracts on the CD (which has a generous running time of 79 minutes) feature music that is truly stirring. The Prelude to Act I is hauntingly evocative, while in addition to well-known numbers such as the Nadir-Zurga duet and Nadir's beautifully orchestrated romance 'Again her voice will haunt me', Leïla's coloratura aria from Act I and cavatina from Act II show the range of Bizet's invention. Her duet with Nadir from the same act is also superb, but for me the stand-out number is the Leïla-Zurga duet from Act III, whose sense of drama and purpose is every bit the equal of the great duets from Carmen. The composer uses a series of interconnecting movements that allows him to contrast different parts of the text with vastly different moments of music; it's by far the most sophisticated thing the score has to offer.
The big selling point of this new recording is its use of a new critical edition by Brad Cohen, who is also the conductor of the project (and can be seen in the current BBC2 series Maestro). The Pearl Fishers was unsuccessful in Bizet's lifetime and after its eighteen performances in 1863 (when it was premiered) it was not staged again until after the composer died. It was published by Choudens in the 1880s, but the opera was tampered with to a surprising extent: even the famous Nadir-Zurga duet was modified, with the harp and flute theme being added to the end where Bizet intended something quite different. Both versions of the duet are given on the CD, but I wish Cohen had stuck to his guns and just recorded the original version; since we're only given highlights of the opera, wouldn't it have been better to record an entirely different number? However, it's good to hear the posthumous trio 'Sacred light of being' – attributed to Benjamin Godard – in which Leïla sings of her love for both Zurga and Nadir.
Chandos is lucky in having secured a superb cast for the recording, with three principals who previously appeared together in the same label's Magic Flute to great effect. Rebecca Evans is making a rare venture into slightly heavier Romantic-period territory by singing the role of Leïla, but it suits her full tone and ardent delivery to perfection. Her cavatina 'I am alone here in the night' is breathtaking in its control, as is the difficult fioritura in her aria 'Brahma the god', and she is a sympathetic colleague in the duets. The finest of these, as mentioned above, is the ten-minute encounter with Zurga in Act III, where the pairing with Simon Keenlyside is ideal. The baritone has never sounded finer, adding a gravitas that befits the head fisherman to the voice; combined with the virility and passion he always brings to his performances, this makes Zurga one of his most attractive interpretations. The trio is completed by Barry Banks, whose beefy tone and high expressivity suggest that, like Evans, an expansion into slightly heavier repertoire might prove successful. His rendition of Nadir's romance (No 4b, 'Again her voice will haunt me') is an example of how even studio recordings can have the emotion and atmosphere of a live opera performance.
Alastair Miles makes a brief but notable appearance as Nourabad, the high priest, and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir once more demonstrates its prowess in operatic repertoire. Brad Cohen is fired up on the podium and draws incisive playing from the London Philharmonic.
For my own part, I'd rather have heard this ultra-French piece sung in the original language, and it would be wonderful to have a complete recording. Nevertheless, Chandos deserves high praise for committing something slightly unusual to disc, and as ever the support of the Sir Peter Moores Foundation of such a worthwhile project is commendable.
By Dominic McHugh
The Pearl Fishers is released on 1 September.