Friday, December 12, 2008

All the Opera That's Fit to Print


In October of this year, Opera News magazine featured an article on The Pearl Fishers, "Perles before Swine" by James C. Whitson. (Read the article here.) It got me thinking about the age-old debate in opera of words versus music. It seems like opera fans come down on one of the two sides. I think it depends on the opera – there are plenty of heart-wrenching operas with less than stellar music and many lyrically gorgeous works with kind of flimsy plots. I keep hearing that The Pearl Fishers falls into the second category. I don't know if I agree – a friendship torn apart and a priestess struggling to maintain her vows of chastity in the face of love is pretty strong stuff – but there's no doubting that Bizet wrote some amazing music. Or so I keep hearing, so I decided it was time to really listen to the opera. Now, keep in mind that I have no musical training. But when people are using words like "exotic," "sensuous," "fragrant," and "colorful," it seems worth checking out.

"Au fond du temple saint"
The big kahuna of the opera. I'm told most people have heard this, and I have to admit, it sounds familiar. It's the duet where the two male leads see each other after several years apart and talk about their promise to avoid a woman who'd come between them. What I really like about the piece is there's a level of gentleness; it's almost feminine. A little over halfway through, the music briefly turns harsh and angry – appropriate, since the men are recalling the first time they saw the priestess and the jealousy they each felt. But overall, I think the piece shows a tenderness and almost tentativeness that reflects what it must be like to see a friend after so many years. The singers seem restrained – as if they're worried about saying the wrong thing and sparking up old anger. I'm looking forward to hearing our singers perform it.

"Je crois entendre encore"
This is Nadir's solo after following the priestess, Leila, and his struggle with his desire for Leila and his promise to his friend Zurga. I feel as though I've heard this before, but I don't know where. I'd say this is actually better than "Au fond" – you can really hear the simultaneous longing and desire. It's a simple piece – no elaborate vocal exercises, just a heart-tugging song that makes you feel for the character's situation. This is probably my second-favorite aria (after "Nessun dorma").

"Comme autre fois"
The priestess Leila's aria when she sees Nadir in the temple. I'm not going to lie – I've never been a big fan of sopranos. The high range is certainly impressive, but give me a tenor any day. The piece includes a cavatina at the end, which is where the soprano is supposed to show off her talent by sort of ad-libbing musically. This piece, though, is relatively short and doesn't seem to have as many high notes that go on forever.

Overall, these pieces all share a level of gentleness coupled with a rolling sound that makes me think of waves on a beach. I've heard French opera is pretty different from Italian opera, so I'm looking forward to seeing how all the pieces come together.

So those are my thoughts – I'd really like to hear yours!

1 comment:

Purrkins said...

"Je crois entendre encore" - for me, this is where the heart of the opera is and is one of those arias -- that when done well -- can move me to tears. The entire opera is a delight -- as long as you leave logic at the door. Bizet did leave enough plot holes open that you can drive an SUV through it without hitting any of the story, but hey, who goes for opera for the plot. The production you are using fits perfectly to the opera.