A new look for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”: Zandra Rhodes in San Diego & San Francisco

In my essays Expanding 1955’s Standard Repertory and “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway?  I noted that opera companies in the late 20th and early 21st century increasingly perform the music in operas as written (no cuts, no transpositions) and present them in their original languages, yet perform them in productions that totally ignore the meaning and context of an opera’s libretto.

In the 19th century, any part of an operatic production could be savaged – not just the libretto. A case in point was Paris’ first major revival of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles”. The Opera management really liked the first act duet between Nadir and Zurga (the melodic “Au fond du temple sainte” that has nearly achieved “hit” status in the 21st century), but did not like the opera’s ending, where Zurga, offstage, burns down the pearl fishers’ village to divert attention from his plot to allow his best friend Nadir and their mutual love interest, Leila, to escape death.

[Below: Zandra Rhodes’ conception of the original ending of “Les Pecheurs de Perles” in which Zurga (Russell Braun) burns the village to divert attention from the prisoners Nadir (Michael Schade) and Leila (Isabel Bayrakdarian), whom he will let escape; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

What to do? Simply commission a fourth rate composer-librettist pickup team to redo chunks of the opera, and to create an ending that has a trio for the soprano, tenor and baritone that recalls (or, more properly, plagiarizes) the trio for soprano, tenor and basso that ends “Faust”, the hit opera of Bizet’s teacher, Gounod. Also, add a reprise of the pleasant first act duet so that the audience leaves the theatre humming its melody.

Re-writing parts of an opera requires re-orchestrating the new parts. So that no one gets confused, it only stands to reason that the orchestration for the old sections of the opera be thrown away. Only an uptight musicologist would complain that these are the only copies of Bizet’s original orchestral parts, but, no matter, musciologists will not be worrying about the original Pearl Fishers until seven decades into the next century.

After all, management reasoned, this opera contains much to sneer at. The libretto was a slapdash affair, the ending of whose story line (like that of the film “Casablanca”) was not decided upon until well after the project began, and its composer was hardly more than a boy.

All of its Oriental feel was a last minute contrivance, since originally the opera was supposed to take place in Mexico. (I have not yet seen a convincing explanation of why the opera was shifted from Mexico to Ceylon, and have assumed that reports of France’s misadventures in Mexico, particularly the slaughter of the French army by the Mexicans on May 5, 1863 – only four months before the opera’s premiere – were a hot topic in Paris, and that interest in producing operas in which Mexicans are heroes had waned. We will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of both Cinco de Mayo and of “Pecheurs de Perles” early in the next decade.)

19th century fin de siecle prejudice against the original opera and satisfaction with the revisions, was followed by 20th century prejudice against the opera’s mutation, which, as we now know, was really quite different from Bizet’s, although it was he who got the blame for music inserted long after his death. But the opera always has had its partisans. It was thought of as a “guilty pleasure” by some. But there were some that knew the opera’s form, such as appears in the Kalmus edition, was different from Bizet’s composition. Is it possible, some speculated, that what Bizet originally wrote is better than the mutated version?

Conductor/musicologist Arthur Hammond took on the challenge in the early 1970s of separating real Bizet from the spurious. Since the discarded parts of the opera were evident from a surviving piano score from the time of the original version, Hammond restored and re-orchestrated the missing music, along with the original ending with Zurga’s well-timed act of arson. The inauthentic reprise of “Au fond de temple sainte” was deemed too popular to mess with, so a version that was much closer to Bizet, but one that contained elements that would have surprised him, premiered at Glyndebourne, and began, very slowly, making the rounds of world opera houses.

Hammond’s edition, published by the Parisian house of Choudens, is not the last word on the opera. Conductor Brad Cohen was able to secure the original conductor’s score from 1863 and has created a new version, published by Peters, that is arguably much closer to Bizet’s intentions. As interest in the opera increases, the demand for more authentic performances will almost certainly grow. The Hammond version is a key stage, though perhaps an intermediate one, in the process.

But most opera audiences do not choose what performances to attend on musicological considerations. More often than not, they choose operas with which they are familiar, or that have opera stars whom they like or about whom they are curious, or operas for which there is some other reason to go (including the fact they are season subscribers and have paid for the tickets anyway). In San Diego, the traditional standard repertory is most welcome. But San Diego Opera’s general director, Ian Campbell, knows how to promote the unfamiliar when he decides to stage it.

Campbell determined to mount a new production of Arthur Hammond’s version of “Pearl Fishers”, enlisting the support of Zandra Rhodes, the inimitable Commander of the British Empire and citizen of San Diego County’s beachside community of Del Mar – a production designer who actually attracts people who might otherwise never attend an opera. Three years ago, Ms Rhodes charmed San Diego audiences with a new production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” that is still making the rounds of opera companies.

[Below: Zandra Rhodes’ conception of the inner sanctuary of the priestess Leila; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Rhodes’ famous creations in jewelry, textiles, and colorful fashion apparel, that are simultaneously chic and over the top Brit-style are contemporary legends of the Western World. Rhodes designed dresses for the late Princess of Wales and continues to design for the living rich and famous. She stokes her punk image by wearing her hair pink, red or green and costuming herself in all the rainbow’s colors. Signing Rhodes for an operatic production is a coup de theatre in its grandest sense.

She took the assignment to develop sets and costumes to match the exoticism of Bizet’s music, and, researching Sri Lankan art and architecture created a world of daffy color, be it purplish palm trees for the exterior scenes or vibrant columns for the inner sanctum of a sacred Hindu place, while respecting the plot lines for which Bizet composed his music. Meanwhile, Campbell widely disseminated CDs containing some of the opera’s most familiar music performed by the announced cast – Michael Schade (Nadir), Russell Braun (Zurga) and Isabel Bayrakdarian (Leila).

[Below: Michael Schade (left) is Nadir, with Russell Braun as Zurga; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Very soon all four February, 2004 performances were sold out and San Diego’s “Pearl Fishers” was the hottest opera ticket on the West Coast. (Each of that trio of artists has had a principal role at the San Francisco Opera in recent years, Bayrakdarian as Valencienne in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, Schade as David in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and Braun in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin”.)

[Below: Isabel Bayrakdarian as Leila; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Although French Second Empire opera fare had not been associated with the General Directorship of San Francisco Opera’s Pamela Rosenberg, she signed up San Francisco to be the production’s second stop for the very next season.

It was a big hit there too. In fact, since I had been talking up the San Diego production which I had seen the previous year, subscribers at the final July, 2005 performance I had never met came over to ask me why this opera had never been performed in the San Francisco main season before!

[Below: the Zandra Rhodes production of “Pearl Fishers” at San Francisco Opera; edited image.]

Rosenberg cast it with another attractive trio, Norah Amsellem as Leila, Charles Castronovo as Nadir and British singer William Dazely as Zurga. Amsellem had previously sung Liu in “Turandot” and Castronovo (himself a graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program) had previously been the Tamino in another celebrity-designed operatic production – David Hockney’s creation of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, one of San Francisco Opera’s current treasures.

24-year Georges Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles” is one of a trio of wonderful operas from the time of France’s Second Empire. It premiered four years after “Faust”, the first giant hit of Bizet’s teacher, Charles Gounod, and was followed five years later by Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”. In the last few decades all three operas seemed to be produced relatively infrequently, at least when compared to their past performance histories, but suddenly in the 21st century, to the horror of some critics, all three are beginning to stir.

All three, of course, are singer’s operas, and singer’s operas depend on the availability and interest of singers that audiences want to come to hear. Even with Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballe managing to sell out performances, the past few decades have been quite tenor-centric.

[Below: Charles Castronovo as Nadir, the role in played at San Francisco Opera in 2005, in a revival at San Diego Opera and at Washington National Opera in 2008, edited image, based on a copyrighted Larry Merkle photograph.]

Thirty years ago (as now) the star tenors were usually not native speakers of French, and, with an abundance of large voices to sing the popular, vocally heavier Verdi and Puccini tenor roles, when the superstars performed the French tenor repertory, it was more usually one of the more dramatic tenor parts such as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen”, Samson in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” or Hoffman in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffman”. There was an international tenor star associated with Faust, Nadir and Romeo – the Spaniard Alfredo Kraus – but it was the two Gounod roles that we associate with his onstage performances, rather than the Bizet.

Now it is different. Perhaps it is a temporary phenomenon, but for the time being there seem to be fewer singers that can comfortably perform the dramatic soprano and tenor roles, but a much larger supply of singers who have the capacity to excel in the vocally lighter roles we would associate with, among the tenors, Alfredo Kraus. To some extent, it is a stage in a singer’s career path. After all, after his 1967 obligatory introduction to San Francisco as Rodolfo in “La Boheme” (the role that Luciano Pavarotti imposed on all operatic managements for his first performances at a new house – see what you can get away with if you have the greatest tenor voice of the last half of the 20th century), Pavarotti’s roles for his second and third seasons at San Francisco Opera were two roles in the Donizetti operas in which Kraus excelled -Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor” (1968) and Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” (1969).

In fact, Pavarotti’s immediate predecessor as Nemorino in Lotfi Mansouri’s new 1967 production was Alfredo Kraus. Pavarotti argued that as he grew older, his voice became more comfortable with the heavier roles. Kraus argued that his own voice perfectly suited the roles in the quite small list of roles that comprised his repertory and to depart from that style of singing would be injurious to his career. Neither ever lacked job offers.

Look through the repertories of so many of today’s talented singers and you will find whole new crops of Leilas, Nadirs and Zurgas. This, the new scholarly work on Bizet’s scores, and the fact the “Les Pecheurs de Perles” is almost inevitably cheaper to produce and is currently easier to cast than, say, Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, leads one to feel encouraged about the opera’s immediate future.

But why should we care that much about this opera with its traditional lightweight reputation? Are we currently simply infatuated with a “guilty pleasure”? With Zandra Rhodes’ zany concepts? With the desire of opera managements for some audience approbation to balance their serious offerings – such as productions of Berg’s “Wozzeck”?

Or should we be interested in “Pecheurs de Perles” for yet another reason – the possibility that when we really hear what Bizet wrote we will learn more about this genius who died so young. What are the operas that are performed with some degree of frequency composed by persons under 25? There are two: Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles”. At 25 Wagner will not have composed “Rienzi”, which is almost never performed, for a half decade. Verdi’s career will have hardly begun.

Then consider that Bizet’s “Carmen” was composed in the year before his death at age 37. Verdi at that age had had some recent success a year before with “Luisa Miller” but much, much less success with the product of that year – “Stiffelio”. He will not begin his trio of mega-hit operas, “Rigoletto”, “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” for two or three more years. Wagner will have produced “Fliegende Hollaender”, “Tannhauser” and “Lohengrin”, but the great works of his maturity are well beyond that age. Puccini will have produced “Manon Lescaut” but “La Boheme” will not be produced for another year, and his other most famous works will be produced in his 40s or in the case of “Turandot” in his 60s. The only reason that all of Mozart’s and Bellini’s operas would make the list of operas that have been composed before age 37 is because both are dead by their 37th year.

Bizet, one of the most creative composers that has lived among us, produced “Carmen”, the most popular opera of all time, recognized as a work of genius by his contemporaries. His earliest major operatic composition, “Pecheurs de Perles” remains in the repertory, and his genius stares at us even through the more mutilated versions of his work. If we knew that we had a painting by the young Raphael that was partly painted over by a later hack, but if we also knew it was possible to remove the offensive overlays of paint and restore most of the original work, would we not do it? Why don’t we try to get as close to what Bizet intended us to hear as we can, and then decide how we should value his work?