Twelve years before he composed "Carmen," Georges Bizet penned the opera "Les Pecheurs de Perles." Like "Carmen"--which eventually went on to become the most popular opera in the world--the "Pearl Fishers" first proved a big flop.
"The man never had any success at all through his whole life," says David DiChiera, general director of Opera Pacific, which will present "Pecheurs de Perles" as its second offering of a three-opera season, beginning Friday.
DiChiera can understand the reactions of the first-nighters. He agrees that the work, Bizet's first important opera, composed in 1863, is uneven.
"But the moment one begins to move out of the circle of the hallowed group of traditional repertoire," he says, "most operas in one way or another are uneven.
"But Bizet's music, his lyricism in this opera is astounding, and it is so different from 'Carmen,' which I think makes it another opportunity to see another dimension of this man who had such a tragic history with his theater works."
A typically tangled opera plot about two men in love with the same woman, the opera contains the justly famous tenor-baritone duet in French opera, "Au fond du temple saint" (In the depths of the temple), whose theme recurs repeatedly to signal the two men's friendship.
Bizet recycled some of his earlier music in the work. The introduction to the hero Nadir's aria "De mon amie" derives from the plaintive oboe melody of the slow movement of his Symphony in C, composed in 1855 when he was 17.
The opera chorus "O Brahma divin" is set to the "Pleni sunt coeli" from a Te Deum he unsuccessfully submitted in a music contest in 1858.
Other passages can be traced to other works, but the third-act Trio "O lumiere sainte" (Oh, light of Heaven) isn't his at all.
It was composed by Benjamin Godard for the first revival in 1886. Godard apparently felt the original ending needed strengthening; others are said to have seriously tampered with Bizet's score as well.
(Incidentally, Bizet's Symphony in C, immortalized in a 1947 ballet with the same title by George Balanchine, remained unperformed until its rediscovery in 1935!)
Bizet's "Pearl Fishers," says DiChiera, shares "that whole 19th-Century French fascination with exoticism, which was a kind of interesting manifestation of Romanticism.
"It gave them so many opportunities to paint beautiful pictures, not only scenically but also musically, and to use all the elements at their disposal to create this kind of foreign world that was not part of their lives."
It was a taste and style that dominated opera worldwide in the early part of the century but proved less durable as time passed.
"So many French operas today have gone out of fashion," DiChiera says. "I would imagine the only French opera that is really heavily current is 'Carmen.' "
DiChiera has signaled his interest in the repertory, however, by announcing a five-year commitment to French opera, beginning with the Bizet work.
Next year, he will offer Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila", Gounod's "Faust" in 1993, Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffman" in 1994 and Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" in 1995.
"There are always problems in mounting French opera," DiChiera says. "Artists and singers today have less experience with the stylistic qualities of French opera than they have with Italian opera.
"The nature of the French language really dictates a very restrained kind of stylized and a rather controlled kind of vocal style, and that's always a challenge, particularly when you don't have singers who are French."
Opera Pacific will alternate two casts of principals in Bizet's "Les Pecheurs de Perles."
Janice Hall and Marcello Giordani will sing Leila and Nadir, respectively, on Feb. 15, 21 and 23; Ai-Lan Zhu and Jianyi Zhang will take over on March 1 and 3. James Dietsch will sing Zurga at all performances. Staging is by David Gately. Mark Flint will conduct.
"There are so many wonderful works in the French repertoire that people deserve to see, if not on the kind of frequent basis we pull out Puccini and Verdi, certainly within every decade or two," DiChiera says.
"It was a whole period of opera that thrived and was so important in the world repertoires. I have a feeling it's going to come back again."
What: Bizet's "Le Pecheurs de Perles."
When: Friday, Feb. 15, Feb. 21, 23 and March 1 at 8 p.m.; March 3 at 2 p.m.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.
Wherewithal: $20 to $70.
Where to Call: (714) 556-2787.