Song of the Week 36: Au Fond du Temple Saint (Bizet) – Björling/Merrill, Byrne/ Wainwright

Sam and Frodo

You might think that bromance is a relatively recent phenomenon, but long before The Odd Couple, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and Star Trek, there was The Temple Duet from The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) by Georges Bizet.

Not long after the French, those innovators in the field of amour, had chanced upon the ménage  á trois, these upstanding messieurs had another solution: Singing in harmony together.

David Byrne - Grown Backwards

I wasn´t really aware of the piece until I heard the David Byrne album Grown Backwards, which also features a wonderful take on Verdi´s Un Di Felice, Eterea. Safe to say David´s a fan of opera then. As is his duet partner for Au fond du Temple Saint (In the Depths of the Temple), Rufus Wainwright, who we talked about in Song of the Week 22: Poses.

Without further ado, here are the pair of them. They´ve just seen the girl of their dreams, a goddess, and rather than bash each other over the head with clubs caveman style, they have an Épiphanie and decide to stay best friends forever.

Georges_bizet

Bizet wrote the opera The Pearl Fishers when he was just 25, and had yet to establish himself in the Parisian musical world. He was commissioned to write it mainly on the strength of his potential as a former winner of the Prix de Rome.

In April 1862, Bizet was in rehearsal for his one act opera La Guzla de l´Emir at the Opéra Comique, when he was approached by Léon Carvalho, manager of the independent Théâtre Lyrique company in Paris. Carvalho had been offered an annual grant of 100,000 francs by the Minister for Fine Arts, Count Walewski on the condition that every year he stage a new three act opera from a recent Prix de Rome winner. He had a high opinion of Bizet´s abilities, so he offered him the libretto of an exotic story by Carré and Eugéne Cormon.

Bizet took the opportunity immediately, but because the grant was restricted to composers who had not had any previous work performed commercially, he decided to quickly abandon the rehearsals for La Guzla. The opera has never been performed, and the music has since unfortunately disappeared.

Les pêcheurs was first performed in 1863  on an initial run of 18 performances. It was well received by the public, but the critics of the time weren´t all that kind.

The critics eventually came around when the music became some of the best loved in all of opera. Although some describe the quality of the music as uneven and in part unoriginal, most now acknowledge it as a work of great promise, where the signs of the composer´s genius for melody and instrumentation were already evident; the seeds of which would later culminate in his masterpiece 10 years later, Carmen.

Bizet died suddenly in the opening run of that opera and would never get to see its popularity flourish. More modern commentators recognise him as a composer of brilliance and originality whose premature death at 36 was a major loss to the French Musical Theatre scene.

The story for The Pearl Fishers is considered quite silly by some. However, many of his contemporaries such as Hector Berlioz were considerably impressed by the musical prowess on show.

beach_sri_lanka

The opera is set on a tropical paradise, the island Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and it is the story of how two men´s vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman. She has her own dilemma, whether to choose secular love or hold true to her sacred oath as a priestess.

Sri Lanka is known as The Tear Drop of India, because of it´s location and shape, and also The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, for its natural beauty.

Caruso as Zurga in The Pearl Fishers 1916

The opera was not revived in Bizet´s lifetime, but from 1886 onwards it began to be played regularly in Europe and America. The original score was lost, so performances of the time were based on amended versions, which had made significant departures from the original. Since the 1970s efforts have been made to redo the score to fall more in line with Bizet´s original intentions.

One of the most beloved versions (see video below) is that of Swedish tenor Johan Jonatan “Jussi” Björling and American baritone Robert Merrill, but it´s also been tackled superbly by Gigli and De Luca, in Italian by the great Caruso and a host of other opera superstars. Good luck opera surfing if that´s the kind of thing that floats your surfboard.

Well, that´s all for this week. Enjoy…

I´ll leave you with Rick and Louis from the film Casablanca:

Lyric and translation:

Tout d’abord, en français

ZURGA
C’était le soir!
Dans l’air par la brise attiédi,
Les brahmines au front inondé de lumière,
Appelaient lentement la foule à la prière!

NADIR
Au fond du temple saint
Paré de fleurs et d’or,
Une femme apparaît!
ZURGA
Une femme apparaît!
NADIR
Je crois la voir encore!
ZURGA
Je crois la voir encore!

NADIR
La foule prosternée
La regarde, etonnée,
Et murmure tous bas:
Voyez, c’est la déesse!
Qui dans l’ombre se dresse
Et vers nous tend les bras!

ZURGA
Son voile se soulève!
Ô vision! ô rêve!

La foule est à genoux!

ZURGA & NADIR
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
Que rien ne nous sépare!

NADIR
Non, rien!

ZURGA
Jurons de rester amis!
NADIR
Jurons de rester amis!
ZURGA
Jurons de rester amis!

ZURGA & NADIR
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!

And the translation…

ZURGA

It was in the evening!
In the air cooled by a breeze,
The brahmanes with faces flooded with light,
Slowly called the crowd to prayer!

NADIR

At the back of the holy temple,
decorated with flowers and gold,
A woman appears!

ZURGA

A woman appears!

NADIR

I can still see her!
ZURGA
I can still see her!

NADIR
The prostrate crowd
looks at her amazed
and murmurs under its breath:
look, this is the goddess
looming up in the shadow
and holding out her arms to us.

ZURGA
Her veil parts slightly.
What a vision!  What a dream!

The crowd is kneeling.

ZURGA & NADIR
Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess,
more charming and more beautiful.
Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess
who has come down among us.
Her veil has parted and the crowd is kneeling.

NADIR
But through the crowd
she makes her way.

ZURGA
Already her long veil
hides her face from us.
NADIR
My eyes, alas!
Seek her in vain!

ZURGA
She flees!

NADIR
She flees!
But what is this strange flame
which is suddenly kindled in my soul!

ZURGA
What unknown fire is destroying me?

NADIR
Your hand pushes mine away!

ZURGA
Your hand pushes mine away!

NADIR
Love takes our hearts by storm
and turns us into enemies!

ZURGA
No, let nothing part us!

NADIR
No, nothing!

ZURGA

Let nothing part us!

NADIR
No, nothing!

ZURGA
Let us swear to remain friends!
NADIR
Let us swear to remain friends!
ZURGA
Let us swear to remain friends!

ZURGA & NADIR
Oh yes, let us swear to remain friends!
Yes, it is her, the goddess,
who comes to unite us this day.
And, faithful to my promise,
I wish to cherish you like a brother!
It is her, the goddess,
who comes to unite us this day!
Yes, let us share the same fate,
let us be united until death!

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8 thoughts on “Song of the Week 36: Au Fond du Temple Saint (Bizet) – Björling/Merrill, Byrne/ Wainwright

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