Two pearl divers fall in love with the same woman. Their passion almost destroys their friendship, but they vow to never again let love come between them. Years later, after working apart for some time, the friends are reunited on the shores of ancient Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), where their voices rise in song as they renew their pledge of loyalty. The melody crescendos powerfully as tenor and baritone express their feelings to one another.

“Let us swear to remain friends! Oh yes! Let us swear to remain friends!” they sing, though they remain awestruck by the woman. “We have seen her and she is the Goddess!”

“Au fond du temple saint,” appears in Act 1 of Georges Bizet’s opera, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), which opens Saturday, June 29, at the Santa Fe Opera. A revival of the production presented in 2012, this year’s Pearl Fishers is directed by Shawna Lucey, who made her SFO debut in 2018 with Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers).

The French opera premiered in 1863 and quickly became beloved for its stunning composition, especially the duet, which is considered by opera experts to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. “It’s irresistible, the ultimate buddy duet,” said Cori Ellison, the new dramaturg at the Santa Fe Opera.

“Tenor-baritone duets incite something in listeners that I haven’t quite figured out,” said conductor Timothy Myers, who makes his SFO debut this year. “There’s something intoxicating about this duet. It’s emotionally impactful every time.”

Ilker Arcayürek, the Austrian tenor playing Nadir, one of the fisherman, said that it can be challenging to “keep a nice musical phrase” while singing the long-breathed melody and “making it sound pure and easy but masculine at the same time.” Though he has sung a concert version of the piece before, this is his first time performing it in a full production. He is looking forward to marrying the emotions of the words and melody with the action on the stage.

There is no denying the beauty of the duet for which the opera tends to be best known, but there is more to Pearl Fishers than one hit song, Myers said. “The piece is packed with phenomenal music. Yes, we have this amazing duet, but get below the surface and you’ll find there are greater treasures to discover.” He is particularly enamored with the action-packed Act 3, which he said rivals in quality anything Verdi ever wrote.

Operas are like tapestries that are woven from many colorful threads, Ellison said, and they offer endless possibilities for interpretation. She said that although the love triangle is often what’s emphasized in productions of Pearl Fishers, that’s not all it has to offer. Pearl Fishers is a story about friendship and romance, but it is also about leadership, spirituality, and self-sacrifice.

Zurga is a man of the people who wrestles with personal and ethical dilemmas, while Nadir is more individualistic and less committed to social and religious obligations, said Lucey, the director. For her, the goddess Leïla is more than an object of desire for the two men. She is the moral center of the opera. “She is a strong woman and perfectly suited to be the spiritual leader of this community. Though she makes a mistake and breaks her covenant for love of Nadir, she shows Zurga the true meaning of leadership when she volunteers herself for sacrifice to try to save her lover and keep the blood of Zurga’s best friend off his hands.”

Ellison said that the Ceylon pearl fishers depicted by Bizet live in a close-knit society where rules and rituals are all-important — and Nadir and Leïla violate these rules by falling in love. “These people’s livelihoods depend upon favorable conditions at sea, and the high priestess’ function is to talk to the gods to make sure that they have favorable natural conditions.”

So why does Leïla succumb to her passions? Is she really a woman of faith, or has the life of a vestal virgin been imposed upon her? Soprano Corinne Winters said that it is Leïla’s faith that makes her so sure she is doing the right thing. “In my interpretation, Leïla’s love for Nadir is chemical and spiritual. She feels an irresistible pull to him, almost as if their love was fated. I don’t think she’d ever allow herself to go there unless some part of her thought that God was on her side.”

Some early critics considered Bizet’s compositions gorgeous but found the story thin and suffering from weak character development. Bizet’s biographer, Winton Dean, wrote that the librettists themselves weren’t particularly proud of the work they did for Bizet’s composition. Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré said that if they had known how talented the 25-year-old Bizet was, they would have tried harder.

Conductor Myers finds this critique unjust. Although a movement toward greater realism came in the later part of the 19th century, with operas like Puccini’s La bohème and its financially struggling artists, “People apply a standard to this piece that baffles me. That’s not what this period of opera is about.”

And Pearl Fishers lives on as part of the standard opera repertoire.

Ellison pointed out that the soaring melody that brings audiences to their feet in Act 1 actually appears twice in the opera. “At the end of the opera, it’s sung by Leïla and Nadir, the soprano and the tenor, in unison. It’s very bittersweet. They’re swearing that their love will rise above all trials while at the same time, Zurga is sacrificing himself to let them escape safely. It’s a stroke of genius on Bizet’s part, reusing this melody. It just rips your heart out.” ◀

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