Sunday 19 November 2017

Dive in and enjoy the many jewels on offer in this pearler from Bizet

George Hamilton

If you'd been in Paris 150 years ago, you might well have been looking forward to a premiere. Wednesday, September 30, 1863, was when one of today's opera favourites first took to the stage.

It wasn't exactly the hottest ticket in town. For one thing, Parisian opera at the time didn't really stray beyond the old reliables. For another, the composer was only a lad of 24.

But he clearly had talent. While still a student, a one-acter he'd written had won first prize in a competition run by Jacques Offenbach, who was an impresario as well as a celebrated composer.

The young man had followed that up with success in the Prix de Rome, a French government-sponsored competition for a scholarship to study in the Italian capital, a prize previously won by the subsequently successful composers Berlioz and Gounod.

It was winning the Prix de Rome that got Georges Bizet (for it was he) the commission to write his first opera. But in the way of these things, this wasn't as straightforward as it sounds.

This was business, after all. The promoter would first look for a story that the audience would like. Much like moviegoers today, opera fans wanted escapism. So the locations were far flung, the stories far fetched.

The libretto – the story that Bizet's music would adorn – was typical. It started off as a tale of American Indian fishermen in Mexico, but even the hardened scriptwriters baulked at the improbability of their tale. So they went for Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) instead, where their heroes would be pearl divers from India. And so Les Pêcheurs des Perles (The Pearl Fishers) was born.

The schedule was tight. Bizet had only four months to complete it, and that meant a few revisions and a few visits to previous efforts to flesh it out. It all came together in time for the first performance, and the paying public liked it enough. It went on for 18 nights.

The critics, though, weren't so sure. Berlioz was in a minority of one in finding it "beautiful and expressive", "filled with fire and rich colouring".

It wasn't enough to save the day. Les Pêcheurs des Perles was never performed again while Bizet was alive (he died young, just 36). The composer himself would describe it as "an honourable, brilliant failure".

Time, though, has been much more kind. The opera is very much part of the repertoire these days, which really is no surprise, for it's full of sumptuous tunes.

Act I produces the favourite song – the baritone/tenor duet 'Au Fond du Temple Saint' – but in this story of pearl divers, there are many other jewels. So good is the music that one of the librettists would later regret lumbering Bizet with a "white elephant" of a script.

Berlioz was right. The Pearl Fishers is a silk purse of an opera, thanks to the genius of Georges Bizet.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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