Comments on the Pearl Fishers of Georges Bizet

2018.09.22 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. One of the most popular songs in the vast history of opera is a two-man aria sung by a tenor and a baritone in Les pêcheurs de perles, or The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet, with libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. The formal title of this aria, commonly known in English as “The Pearl Fishers Duet,” is “Au fond du temple saint”, which I translate as “In the inner sanctum of the holy temple.” The première of Pearl Fishers took place on 30 September 1863 in Paris. Bizet had not yet even reached the age of 25. Only ten years later, there will be Carmen. And it will be only even later that the popularity of the “Duet” eventually takes hold. Nowadays, in any case, this aria is universally celebrated for its singular beauty as a self-standing piece of music. I focus here on one special feature of the musicality that is built into the “Duet”: the music of this aria, words and all, compresses the entire story of the opera into a single song. What I find most remarkable about such compression is an artistic effect that I will describe here as lyrical. And the lyric compression of this aria, I will argue, can be enhanced visually in the art of film making.

§1. The film I have in mind is Opéra imaginaire, 1993, originally made for television. It consists of twelve segments, the sixth one of which is the Pearl Fishers Duet, sung by Nicolai Gedda, lyric tenor, and Ernest Blanc, baritone. The director of this segment, filmed in a dreamy black-and-white format, is Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami. The technique of animation, known as “rotoscope,” is used here to achieve what I call the artistic effect of lyric compression.

§2. I referred just a moment ago to the “dreamy” format of the film. In this paragraph, I try to explain what I mean. The animation created by Murakami gives the initial impression of half-animation. It seems more like a series of snapshots than a true film, since the frame-rate per second is so slow. Paradoxically, the slowness of the frame-rate speeds up our perception of action, since the intervals between the moment of one “snapshot” and the next moment are illogically too wide to be realistic. That is to say, too much of what is happening in-between has been blanked out—or, better, “darkened out”—frame by frame. The result is a story that seems to get told in its entirety within the brief time that it takes to sing just one song. There is, then, a dreamlike speed in the action, as if a whole life could be lived within the time-frame of an aria. Such “dreamy” storytelling, I argue, is typical of what I have described as lyric compression.

I show here the film sequence:

§3. In the opera, the character of “Zurga” is to be sung by a baritone, and the character of “Nadir” is to be sung by a lyric tenor. But then there is also a woman, who is a high priestess named “Léïla,” and this character is to be sung by a soprano. In the story, both the baritone and the tenor are hopelessly in love with the soprano. And the question is, which one of the two will the soprano choose for her lover? To ask the same question more colloquially, which one of the two will “get the girl”?

§4. Even if they do not happen to remember the story-line of Pearl Fishers, lovers of opera are likely to offer an educated guess in answer to this question, which one of the two will “get the girl”? Since the “girl” is a soprano, they will be reasoning, then surely the one who “gets the girl” has to be the tenor, not the baritone. That’s the way things happen in opera. In such a medium, that’s life. And, in the case of the story told in the opera Pearl Fishers, such an educated guess would be the right one to make: in this opera as well, the lyric tenor of the story does in fact succeed in winning the love of the soprano.

§5. But there is more to it. In Pearl Fishers, the baritone who fails to win the love of the soprano will have to die for this love. In the story-line of Pearl Fishers, the baritone not only gives up on “getting the girl,” but he also lovingly dies for her. It is as if this man could love this woman so much that he would prefer her happiness to his own life. But there is even more: the baritone lovingly dies for the lyric tenor as well. And here is where the story-line of Pearl Fishers fuses with the musical beauty of the Pearl Fishers Duet—and with the visual beauty of the film sequence that fuses the duet with the entire story-line.

After Opéra imaginaire, directed by José Abel et al., including Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami (1993).
After Opéra imaginaire, directed by José Abel et al., including Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami (1993).

§6. In the film sequence, the lyric compression of the story-line is suggestive of a latently homoerotic if not homosexual attraction between the characters corresponding to the lyric tenor and the baritone. And of course there is an overtly heterosexual attraction between the characters of the lyric tenor and the soprano—as also between the characters of the baritone and the soprano. There is conflict, of course, in the case of the heterosexual attractions, since the soprano will have to choose between the lyric tenor and the baritone. But these same conflicting heterosexual attractions will now fuse into a blended homoerotic attraction as the rival lovers of the soprano fuse their voices in a duet that excludes the soprano. Musically, it is the exclusion of the soprano from the duet between the lyric tenor and the baritone that becomes suggestive of a latently homoerotic attraction.

§7. The death of a man for a woman may be seen as an act of heterosexual love—but not necessarily. So also the death of that same man for another man need not be seen as a corresponding act of homosexual or even homoerotic love. What overrides the sexual or even erotic dimensions of dying for love can be formulated in terms of love itself. We see here a situation where a love for another self will override the love for one’s own self. In my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Hour 6, I point out that such a situation is dramatized most clearly in the Homeric Iliad, where the hero Patroklos lovingly dies for his other self, who is the hero Achilles.

§8. In the same book, H24H, Hour 5, I also point out something that is relevant to the lyric compression of the Pearl Fishers Duet. It has to do with a climactic moment in rituals of female initiation where a “priestess” or her equivalent is momentarily transformed into a goddess who manifests herself in a luminous epiphany. Here I see a point of comparison with the initial wording of the Pearl Fishers Duet. Before I elaborate on this point of comparison, however, I must make a disclaimer: the “ritual” that is imagined by the composer and his librettists—and even by the film maker—is anthropologically and historically inaccurate, verging on naive orientalism. With this disclaimer in place, however, I am ready to conclude by making a comparison between genuine rituals of female initiation as I describe them in my book and the “ritual” that is visualized in the Pearl Fishers Duet.

§9. Although the soprano is excluded from the Pearl Fishers Duet, the vision of the “girl” who is temporarily muted keeps asserting itself luminously in the song that fuses the voices of the lyric tenor and the baritone. In that song, from the very beginning of the epiphany that is conjured by the music, the “girl” has really become the goddess. Oui, c’est elle, c’est la déesse ‘Yes, it is she, it is the goddess’. This goddess will come between her ardent worshippers, who both long to be her lovers, but then she will fuse them as one in the beauty of the song.

After Opéra imaginaire, directed by José Abel et al., including Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami (1993).
After Opéra imaginaire, directed by José Abel et al., including Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami (1993).

Here are the words for the song—first in the original French and then in English (my translation):

NADIR ET ZURGA:
Oui, c’est elle!
C’est la déesse plus charmante et plus belle!
Oui, c’est elle!
C’est la déesse qui descend parmi nous!
Son voile se soulève et la foule est à genoux!

NADIR:
Mais à travers la foule
Elle s’ouvre un passage!

ZURGA:
Son long voile déjà
Nous cache son visage!

NADIR:
Mon regard, hélas!
La cherche en vain!

ZURGA:
Elle fuit!

NADIR:
Elle fuit!
Mais dans mon âme soudain
Quelle étrange ardeur s’allume!

ZURGA:
Quel feu nouveau me consume!

NADIR:
Ta main repousse ma main!

ZURGA:
Ta main repousse ma main!

NADIR:
De nos cœurs l’amour s’empare
Et nous change en ennemis!

ZURGA:
Non, que rien ne nous sépare!

NADIR:
Non, rien!

ZURGA ET NADIR:
Jurons de rester amis!
Oh oui, jurons de rester amis!
Oui, c’est elle! C’est la déesse!
En ce jour qui vient nous unir,
Et fidèle à ma promesse,
Comme un frère je veux te chérir!
C’est elle, c’est la déesse
Qui vient en ce jour nous unir!
Oui, partageons le même sort,
Soyons unis jusqu’à la mort!

 

Nadir and Zurga:
Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess, most beguiling and beautiful.
Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess who descends among us.
Her veil is lifted, and the crowd are on their knees.

Nadir:
But she makes her way through the crowd,
clearing a passage before her.

Zurga:
Her long veil is now starting to
hide from us her looks.

Nadir:
My gaze, alas,
is seeking her in vain.

Zurga:
She flees.

Nadir:
She flees.
But in my soul, suddenly,
what a strange flame has been lit.

Zurga:
What sort of new fire is consuming me!

Nadir:
Your hand pushes back my hand.

Zurga:
Your hand pushes back my hand.

Nadir:
Our hearts are seized by love
and it changes us into enemies.

Zurga:
No, let nothing separate us!

Nadir:
No, nothing!

Zurga and Nadir:
Let us swear to remain friends.
Oh yes, let us swear to remain friends.
Yes, it is she! It is the goddess.
Who comes today to unite us,
and, faithful to my promise,
like a brother I want to cherish you.
Yes, it is she! It is the goddess.
Who comes today to unite us.
Yes, let us share a single destiny.
Let us stay united until death.

 

And here again is the film sequence:

 



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