Could someone please explain what the opera audience in Paris was thinking during the Second Empire, the time of Napoleon III, 1852-1870? They adored the gigantic productions of Meyerbeer, cheered almost anything by Gounod, and raved about Thomas's Hamlet. Were they smashed on absinthe, or giddy that Baron Haussmann had knocked down the ramshackle medieval slums and replaced them with great promenades? What was their excuse? Now, except for Gounod's Faust, not much remains in the rep from these once-lionized composers. Meanwhile, the Parisians sneezed on Hector Berlioz and Georges Bizet, the critics merciless in their contempt and scorn. But today the works of Berlioz and Bizet are certifiable classics.
Take poor Bizet. A music prodigy, he was writing piano works and a symphony as a teenager. He had entered the Paris Conservatoire, perhaps the finest music school in the world until NYC's Juilliard, at the ripe age of nine. Once, at a soirée, the young pianist bested “the god of the piano,” Liszt, at his own étude, playing it by ear and sight-reading the rest. Bizet won every major music prize Paris could offer – and the newly christened City of Light offered a great many in the 19th century – and off he went to Italy with the city's most prestigious music award, the Prix de Rome. One of the perks was a contract at the Opéra-Comique for a one-act opera, and Bizet started an opéra bouffe by librettists Carré and Barbier, a writing team that was as famous in its day as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Kaufman and Hart are in ours. This was a plum assignment. By one of those quirks of fate, the Comique's rival, the Théâtre Lyrique, was to be given a government subsidy if it mounted a three-act opera from a Prix de Rome winner. The money was too good to refuse. Bizet withdrew his one-act from the Comique and jumped onto the Lyrique's stage and immediately set to work on The Pearl Fishers (1863).
Old pro Carre was one step ahead of him with a story about a love triangle on the island of Ceylon, although at first he set his potboiler in old Mexico, but that didn't seem exotic enough for Parisian taste, so India was selected. The “exotic” was sure-fire, it was hot, it was in. Anything set in a distant land, the more distant the better, was box-office. Bizet was twenty-four years old, at the top of his melodic game, but not yet the established man of the theater. He wanted to write opera more than anything. His young friend Camille Saint-Saëns tried to turn Georges toward orchestral works, but Bizet was adamant. “I'm not built for the symphony. I need the theater. I can't do anything without it.” He knew his limitations and his strengths.
Until then, he had worked on ten operas, some full-length, some one-acts, but nothing caught his spirit, and only two survive, The Miracle Doctor (1856) and his Rossini knockoff Don Procopio (1859). So Bizet came of age with Pearl Fishers, and it's a stunner. There's a lot in it that sounds like music-hall Offenbach, and there's much that echoes grand Gounod, but most of it is pure Bizet: endless melody, tricky rhythms, ripe orchestration. Bizet had one of music's great ears.
The opera is nowhere near the clunker the critics at the time, and some modern ones too, would have you believe. It's not a clunker at all. It's just very simple in plot, embellished by sumptuous music. There's so much more to it than the justly famous tenor/baritone bromance duet from Act I, “Au fond du temple saint” (“In back of the holy temple...”), which has entered opera heaven as one of the loveliest pieces in the rep. I defy you not to be moved by the many atmospheric choral passages, Leila's coloratura filigree, Zurga's macho passion, Nadir's ardent declaration of love, the High Priest's Snidely Whiplash volcanic outbursts. It's an earful. This is grand opera with everyone dressed in saris and carrying lotus blooms.
There's no need to go into great detail. Listen to the overture and you'll see what glories lie here. A soft burst from the orchestra jumps into a swirling tuneful wisp as the strings curl upward like incense, or perhaps crawl along the jungle floor like India's poisonous krait. It's sensuous and sexy, perfumed in a way. It says foreign and “exotic” as only the 19th century could say it.
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Although it was announced at the beginning that soprano Lindsay Russell (Leila, virgin priestess) and baritone Octavio Moreno ( Zurga, macho chief of the seaside village) were suffering from colds, you couldn't tell it by me. Moreno let out a tiny cough somewhere during Act I, but that was it. Otherwise, they were in excellent voice and form. Russell is exceptionally pretty – a Kathryn Grayson type, for you MGM buffs – and rode through Bizet's ornate vocal ornaments without any strain or fuss. Her silvery voice is powerful, commanding and lithe. Moreno has stage presence to spare, and his final farewell to the lovers was exceedingly moving. Tenor Eric Bowden (Nadir, ardent lover of Leila) has clean tone if not powerful pulse. He doesn't get lost in Bizet's swirling atmosphere, but he doesn't really stand out either, although his famous duet with Zurga was passionately conveyed. One wishes bass Chris Besch (Nourabad, malevolent high priest) had more to do than stand and deliver death threats and be one of opera's poorest sports, but he thundered magnificently, his cistern-deep voice echoing throughout Lambert Hall. He was chillingly good.
Set designer Jodi Bobrovsky gives us a decorative ruined temple, costumer Macy Lyne dresses the characters in soft pastel silks, and lighting designer Jim Elliott bathes the show in atmospheric crimson fire and yellow light of dawn. Director John De Los Santos provides some startling stage compositions that recall golden age Hollywood and manages to make OH's shoe-box stage look a whole lot bigger than it is. Under choirmaster Sahar Nouri, the chorus sounds sumptuous; and, as usual, maestro Eiki Isomura, using a reduced score by Karl Blench, makes the whole thing sound like the Philharmonic.
Opera in the Heights puts on a very good show. Bizet wins all around. Carmen, of course, is his undisputed masterpiece, but Pearl Fishers is a very close second. This production proves it.
The Pearl Fishers continues at 2 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. February 3, 9 and 11. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $15 to $75.