When it comes to French composer Georges Bizet, there's Carmen, and then there's everything else. Carmen understandably grabs all the attention with its vaguely Spanish exoticism, its powerful melodies, and its wrenching drama. There's a reason it has become a staple of opera houses around the world, one of the dozen-or-so operas that is probably being performed on a stage somewhere on any given day. The weight of Carmen can be stifling, leaving little space for anything else Bizet wrote.
It's refreshing, then, that the North Carolina Opera is digging deeper into Bizet's first full opera, The Pearl Fishers, written in a mad dash in the spring and summer of 1863, when the composer was only twenty-four. Set in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the opera tells the story of a love triangle between two friends, Zurga and Nadir, and Leila, a priestess of the Hindu creation god. Zurga and Nadir had both fallen for Leila in the past but renounced that love for the bonds of friendship. Leila appears, veiled, to perform her duties to ensure a safe pearl harvest, and those bonds of friendship are tested. Nadir is revealed to have had a romance with Leila, which the two soon resume; Zurga is incensed and sentences them both to death. In the final act, Leila pleads for Nadir's life, and, through a few weird coincidences, Zurga decides to free them.
The libretto, by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré, is nothing to write home about, full of orientalist stereotypes, flat characters, and fairly unbelievable dramatic turns. Cormon is said to have later remarked that the two would have worked a little harder on it, had they known how good a composer Bizet was. Plenty of operas feature music that transcends a middling libretto, and this is largely one such opera. Throughout are glimpses of Bizet's strong melodic and dramatic sense. The duo when Nadir and Zurga are reunited, "Au fond du temple saint," is one of the great declarations of friendship (and, perhaps, love) in opera, and the rest of the opera is peppered with equally sumptuous arias and duos. The Pearl Fishers may not be as fiery as Carmen, but there's still lots to enjoy.
This fully staged production will be N.C. Opera's final performance with artistic and music director Timothy Myers at the helm. His tenure has seen huge growth in the company, both in terms of artistry and ambition. The production will display all the hallmarks of his leadership: a cast full of rising opera stars, intricate stagings (this time with soloists from the Carolina Ballet), and a strong musical voice. —Dan Ruccia