Georges Bizet’s first major opera, composed and performed in Paris when he was a mere 25, has the dubious distinction of being both a success and a flop, depending on who is asked. Audiences at the première loved it, but critics panned it. The opera opened in Paris on 30 September 1863 and, after completing its eighteen-show run, was removed from the stage and never again performed in Bizet’s lifetime. It is lucky for modern audiences that the opera was revived after his death, for while the story is simplistic, the music is lush and gorgeous. The Deutsche Oper, performing a concert performance at the Berlin Konzerthaus, produced an evening of exquisite beauty.

Joseph Calleja © Mathias Bothor / Decca 2011
Joseph Calleja
© Mathias Bothor / Decca 2011

The Pearl Fishers is the story of two friends in love with the same woman, who swear to forsake her in order to maintain their friendship. Zurga and Nadir, two Ceylonese fishermen, both love the young priestess, Leila. She herself has covenanted to forswear all worldly love affairs. But Leila and Nadir love each other, and as this is grand opera, nothing can separate them. Crushed by his friend’s betrayal, Zurga insists they die, immolated on an enormous pyre on the beach before the fishermen’s huts (apparently in ancient Ceylon, soprano/tenor love duets are punishable by death). Having a change of heart at the last moment, he allows the lovers to depart in peace and quiet dignity. The music swoops and soars, prances and snarls and moans. And under it all is the quiet roar of the relentless sea.

Joseph Calleja sang the role of Nadir with beautiful tones, acting as well as singing the part. He brought across the young man’s sorrow at betraying his friend, his love for the untouchable Leila, and hope for a better future. Calleja’s lyric tenor voice possesses a crystalline beauty, making his arias and duets seductive, exquisite. His Zurga was German baritone Christoph Pohl, whose voice is rich and strong. In the duet “Au fond du temple saint”, the men’s voices blended into a chorus of light and dark, high and low. The audience loved it, shouting their approval.

Their Leila was sung by Ekaterina Siurina, a soprano with a clear, bell-like voice (and who wore a gown made out of pale green sari fabric). Starting the evening hesitantly, she soon warmed up to make her aria thrilling, the coloratura warm and silvery. Her Leila was passionate but calm, if a bit frazzled by the end. Act III saw Siurina’s Leila as very firm in her love for Nadir, if sad and angry at the way things were not working out for them.

Harassing them all was the priest, Nourabad, sung here by Ante Jerkunica, in a terrifying bass voice, intruding on the lovers at the most inopportune moments. Together the singers made beautiful work of an almost ridiculously bland story (the librettists, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, later admitted that had they known of Bizet’s talent, they would have tried harder). Indeed, even without the orchestra, the evening would have been a success.

But the orchestra was there, and it was the true star of the night. Under conductor Guillermo Garcia Calvo, it very nearly outshone the singers. Calvo kept the pace steady, allowing the music to prance and snarl and moan without seeming rushed or forced. The magic of Bizet’s score here is that, while the exotic in music was all the rage in France, he took it to a real extreme in this opera. And so the orchestra sweeps and snarls as under Nourabad, whispers like a lover, moans and prays, a constant flow of imagery that has the listener seeing a small community of impoverished pearl fishers living on the edge of the sea. We see the Hindu temple where Leila prays for their safety. We see the bonfire that the villagers dance around while awaiting the lovers’ execution. Take away the singers and this would still be a remarkable symphonic story (though not, perhaps, as fantastically melodramatic). Even Bizet’s early critics had to admit to this. Hector Berlioz, reviewing the première in 1863, wrote: “The score of Les pêcheurs de perles does M. Bizet the greatest honor”. That honor was in great force, given that this was a concert performance where all of the singers, barring Siurina in her sari, wore tails. The lack of set and costumes allowed the music to take center stage and paint an aural picture.

Likewise, the chorus of the Deutsche Oper outdid themselves as the amassed pearl fishers and fishwives. Their sound was huge and round, their hope of safety both touching and threatening (one had the impression that had any of the pearl fishers died, Leila would have had her heart ripped out). The final chorus in Act II, a hymn to Brahma, sounds more like a mass – and, in fact, is, the music coming from a Te Deum that Bizet wrote while in Rome. The chorus’ part is wild and exotic everywhere else, but here, its step into the realms of Christian music is both appropriate and terrifying.

Altogether, the concert was excellent. Singers, musicians and chorus united to give the audience an evening of exquisite beauty and emotion.