It's a mystery why The Pearlfishers is an orphan in the theatre. Until comparatively recently it was an exotic rarity. Yet watching Penny Woolcock's revived production at the Coliseum you cannot but marvel at the musical skill of the young Bizet (and in passing four loud cheers to everyone involved for finding the time and for making the effort to think again about things that didn't quite work in this Pearlfishers first time round. This is everything a revival ought to be, reimagined and with even a brand new set in Act III.) .
But back to the mystery. Is it perhaps that in Carmen, Bizet composed a well nigh perfect opera and that by comparison you can see the carpentry in The Pearlfishers? Well, up to a point. But the form and style, not to mention the subject matter, are where the two operas are different though they do share a taste for the exotic and the erotic. In Ceylon and Spain the nineteenth century could imagine doing things that wouldn’t be socially acceptable at home, like running off with a gyspy. That said Leila, the priestess who breaks her vows in The Pearlfishers is no Carmen.
Then there's Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s libretto, not so much carpentered as simply nailed together its critics claim. How cruel the critic who wrote after the first night of The Pearlfishers inSeptember 1863 that ‘there were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music.” And Cormon is supposed to have said that had he known how gifted Bizet was as a composer then he and his co-writer might have tried harder! And yes - beware plot spoiler approaching - the necklace that saves Leila and Nadir in the 'happy ending' version of the opera is pretty clunky. But the plots of nineteenth century opera are littered with improbabilities. This is a version of music theatre with its feet deep in blood and thunder melodrama where we positively long for the unexpected and relish the unlikely. In any case Penny Woolcock plots the necklace pretty skillfully.
If it's not the libretto maybe it's the dramaturgy. Or to put it plainly, is Bizet the agent of his own misfortune by putting the celebrated duet for tenor and baritone too early in the opera. Where do you go after Au fond du temple saint, marvelously orchestrated as Martin Fitzpatrick, Head of Music at ENO, said at the Pearl Fishers pre-performance talk ten days ago. It begins with flute and harp and builds up to a grand tutti that matches the feelings of the two young men who are suddenly reunited. Who can doubt the depth of friendship between Nadir and Zurga? But there's a serious dramatic point in placing this sumptuous number in Act I. For one way of reading this opera is to see it as an account of the transience of male friendship. In the opera, that bond between Nadir and Zurga is undone by Leila, or rather by the desire she provokes in both men. And you don't need the Viennese Witchdoctor to tell you how destructive eros can be. It even burns a village – sorry, another plot spoiler. The Pearlfishers strikes a sympathetic chord in an age that endlessly puzzles about gender.
Dare I suggest that the problem with Bizet's 'other' opera is that it was ahead of its time (my tongue is only just in my cheek!)?