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Co-Starring with 'Carmen': Bizet's 'The Pearl Fishers'

Is it possible for a musical artist to come up with a work so successful that it actually ends up hurting their reputation? It sounds unlikely, but let's have a look at one possible example.

Mention the name Georges Bizet to a roomful of music lovers and responses will vary widely, ranging from "one of the all time greats" to "lightweight tunesmith" -- and every one of the varying opinions might just rest on a single composition. It's a mega-hit that tends to relegate his other works to second string status, leading some to dub Bizet as a "one hit wonder."

Carmen, Bizet's final opera, was largely panned at its Paris premiere in 1875, and the composer died just a few months later. So he never saw what it ultimately became: one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of all time. Carmen's "Habanera," the "Toreador March" and Don Jose's "Flower Song," are just a few of its many hit numbers -- which can make it seem as though that single score must surely contain all of Bizet's finest music.

So it's easy to forget that another of the composer's best-loved tunes comes from a different opera, and reveals that there's more to Bizet than just Carmen.

The opera is The Pearl Fishers, and it boasts a tenor-baritone duet, called "Au fond du temple saint," that sits right beside those famous numbers from Carmen on the Bizet hit parade; you can hear it in versions ranging from big band jazz arrangements to synthesized elevator music. But The Pearl Fishers itself has remained in Carmen's shadow -- which is too bad, as it has far more to recommend it than just one, ubiquitous duet, and reveals another dimension of Bizet's brilliance.

The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1863 and, like Carmen, it got a rocky reception. But there was one critic who saw things differently right from the start. In one of his last reviews, published a week or so after the opera's first performance, Hector Berlioz cited The Pearl Fishers as evidence of Bizet's "characteristic genius" and described the opera as having "a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces, filled with fire and rich coloring." Listen for yourself, and you might just decide that Berlioz was right.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Bizet's The Pearl Fishers from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden -- in the opera's first performance there since 1920. Tenor John Osborne and baritone Gerald Finley star as Nadir and Zurga, the troubled friends who join in the famous duet, with soprano Nicole Cabell as Leila, the woman who comes between them.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.