My husband and I attended Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers last night. The theater was packed – probably because the opera promised 3 hours of unbridled fantasy and romantic melodrama and also because there are fewer performances of one opera these days at the Seattle Opera. The story of a passionate love triangle was set in a pre-modern fishing village on an exotic island, involving two virile young men and a beautiful young priestess.
This production was lavish in many ways unlike the two more recent operas produced by the Seattle Opera, which tended to be minimalistic or restrained. The opera boasted whimsically colorful sets and costumes, exotic-looking dancers, as well as large cast. The set and costumes were designed by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who is famous for her extravagant style. (Incidentally, she also designed for Seattle Opera’s The Magic Flute, which we enjoyed very much.) The opera had a few dance numbers that seemed to stress the exotic eroticism of a faraway fantasy land. The principal singers had beautiful voices and sang well, and I was happy to learn that the source of a familiar melody, “Je crois entendre encore,” was actually an aria from The Pearl Fishers.
According to an essay in the program, titled “Bizet’s Now-Beloved Bromance,” this opera created by Bizet when he was 24 was dismissed “as an ‘apprentice’ work” when it was first performed in 1863. It is difficult to believe that this opera with several memorable melodies and very operatic storyline was never performed again during the composer’s lifetime. Why didn’t the opera-goers of Bizet’s time enjoy this particular opera? True, the story is over the top and at times incoherent. But, many operas are that way. Is it because of the opera’s “excessive” sensuality? After all, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was prosecuted for its perceived obscenity in France in 1857. The writer Jonathan Dean theorizes the rising popularity of this opera in our time this way: “Going to the opera today is just as much about enjoying the beauty of men, their voices and bodies, as it is about enjoying the beauty of women.” I am not really convinced by this theory, but I have to agree that open sensuality is more readily accepted in our time.