1 August 2019
The Power of the Mob
By Susanne Sheston
Georges Bizet’s opulent opera The Pearl Fishers is a brilliant showpiece for the lead singers in any production. As is traditional in French grand opera, the chorus also plays a prominent part and is on stage for much of the performance. As the story grows in intensity, the chorus’s rousing ensembles fuel the heat of the score, leaving the more tender vocal exclamations to the principal characters. The villagers portrayed by the chorus create a fully composite character in their own right, playing against the other principals.
When the opera begins, the chorus’s singing is the first vocal entrance that we hear, as the fishermen and villagers gather to elect a new chief (“Sur la grève en feu”). Their tune is emphatic, pulsing with energy, and includes frequent unisons sung by the various sections of the chorus—emphasizing the power of the group. We get the idea right away that this is a ritualistic culture, and also see a hint of the “power of the mob” that is to play out later in the opera.
Leïla arrives to be ordained as temple priestess, a solitary and difficult honor, and the chorus offers a moment of lilting, gentle melody, as each vocal section greets Leïla in turn (“Sois la bienvenue”). Musically, the chorus’s themes are of a similar character to some of Leïla's own limpid melodies yet to come. The same ensemble also foreshadows Nadir’s famous aria “Je crois entendre encore,” which appears in the next scene, set in both the same meter as the chorus and in the parallel minor key. Effectively, the aria subtly references the recent chorus/Leïla scene musically, as Nadir poetically recounts his encounter with the veiled Leïla.
The little gem “L’ombre descend des cieux,” sung by the chorus with piccolo and tambourine accompaniment at the start of the second act, is a charming set piece that goes by quickly enough that it may be missed. The ensemble is sung offstage, in the background of the meeting of Leïla and the High Priest Nourabad in the temple. The mood of the villagers here is light, as reflected in the bouncing rhythm of the music and the high, bright chirps of the instruments—a literal calm before the storm.
As Nadir’s blasphemy is discovered during Act II, the villagers arrive and a storm erupts, both literally and figuratively. The crowd works itself into a frenzy, calling for the death of Nadir. When village leader Zurga, who initially calls for calm, joins the bloodlust, the chorus extols a passionate cry to the god Brahma for assistance (“Brahma, divin Brahma”). This short chorus displays Bizet’s fine ability to craft an exhilarating, crashing, “mass of sound” effect from the chorus and orchestra. It is a thrilling end to the second act, but a very short postlude suggests the tensions of both the stormy sea and the crowd lowering to a slow simmer.
In the third act, the chorus appears again, frenzied, preparing a pyre for the ritual execution of Leïla and Nadir (“Dieu que le soleil”). The resulting ensemble is one of the most explosive scenes in the opera. Again, Bizet relies on unison statements from the chorus within the ensemble, reinforcing the power of the group mentality. For the final strokes of the score, Bizet dispenses with the villagers, leaving Nadir, Leïla, and Zurga to their ultimate scene. However, the threat of the crowd continues to loom large, pending the consequences of the trio’s decisions.
Susanne Sheston has served as Santa Fe Opera Chorus Master since 2008. Her work in Santa Fe has included choral preparations for six world premieres and two North American premieres. You can learn more about her by visiting susannesheston.org.
The Pearl Fishers runs until August 23, 2019. Conductor Timothy Myers and director Shawna Lucey lead this revival of our stunning 2012 production, which was called “The best of this summer’s season,” by The Wall Street Journal, “True to the letter and the spirit of the work,” by the Chicago Tribune, and “An unqualified success,” by the Denver Post. The cast includes Corinne Winters, Ilker Arcayürek, Anthony Clark Evans, and Robert Pomakov.