The Pearl Fishers in 1863: a selection of first night reviews
11th November 2016 in Features News
compiled and edited by Philip Reed
The music represents the theatrical debut of Georges Bizet, grand Prix de Rome for 1857. Bizet must be twenty-six or twenty-eight years old [in fact he was twenty-four]. Bear this name well in mind. It is that of a musician [. . .] The score is of a superior quality. There is in this first work an assurance, a calm, an easy, powerful handling of the choruses and the orchestra which certainly announce a composer [. . .] The score is already greatly criticised, widely discussed. After listening to the work seriously three times, I persist in finding in it the rarest virtues.
There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music [. . .] M. Georges Bizet, as a beginner, was condemned to accept gratefully the libretto of The Pearl Fishers [. . .] he has great assurance in the way he deals with the orchestra and mass vocal effects [. . .] But The Pearl Fishers betrays on every page, along with the talent of the composer, the bias of a school to which he belongs, that of Richard Wagner. Everything M. Bizet has written spontaneously bears the hallmark of really estimable virtues. The rest is written by a disciple with his eyes on the Master [. . .] M. Bizet, I hasten to add, is far from being altogether a Wagnerite [. . .] I know him to be intelligent enough to season his admiration.
The score of this opera had a real success. It includes a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces full of fire and rich colouring. There is no overture, but an introduction sung and danced with great verve and spirit. The duet that follows, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ [‘From deep within the shrine’] is well carried out in a simple and sober style.
The chorus for the arrival of Leïla seemed rather ordinary, but the one that follows is, on the contrary, majestic and pompous in a remarkably harmonious way. Much of Nadir’s aria, with its obbligato accompaniment of violoncellos and horn, is praiseworthy; besides, Morini sang it delightfully. We must mention also a pretty chorus sung in the wings and a triple-rhythm passage in which a violin solo produces an original effect. I like less Leïla’s aria on the mountain. It is accompanied by a chorus with the kind of rhythm one dares no longer to write today. Another aria of Leïla’s, with a horn solo, is full of grace; the intervention of a group of three wind instruments introduced and reintroduced superlatively well produced a ravishingly original effect.
There are fullness and fine dramatic movement in Nadir’s and Leïla’s duet, ‘Ton coeur n’a pas comprise mien’ [‘Your heart was not possessed like mine’]. I would reproach the composer only for having abused in this duet the device of doubling the voices in octaves. The chief’s aria in the third act has character; Leïla’s prayer is touching. It would be even more so without the exercise in vocalisation which to my mind spoils the beauty of the end.
M. Bizet, laureate of the Institut, took the journey to Rome; he has come back without having forgotten the nature of music. Since his return to Paris, he has rapidly acquired the very rare special reputation of an incomparable reader of scores. His talent as a pianist also is great enough so that, in his transcriptions of orchestral music, which he does at sight, no mechanical difficulty can stop him [. . .]
The score of The Pearl Fishers does M. Bizet the greatest honour, and he will have to be recognized as a composer in spite of his rare talent as a pianist.