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You have to wonder how Bizet would feel about our response to The Pearl Fishers, were he alive today. This three-act opera lasts around eighty minutes and has an exotic plot, rich orchestral imagery and a number of arias to boot. And yet, it’s almost solely remembered today for an extract that many think is a stand-alone piece of music: The Pearl Fishers’ Duet.
Sung by the characters Zuria and Nadir, caught in a love triangle with the one girl they’re both after, the duet has been performed thousands of times in its own right in the concert hall. Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill capture Bizet’s music magically in their definitive 1950s recording. Bryn Terfel also joined forces with Andrea Bocelli to perform it at the Classical BRIT awards in 2003; there was a warmth and passion in their rendition that the young Bizet would surely have approved of.
Not received well at the time, the full-length opera has never really garnered much critical acclaim. That’s understandable, though; Bizet was, after all, only twenty-four when he began composing it, and it was by no means his most mature work. The famous duet alone arguably contains enough musical magic to more than justify the continued popularity of The Pearl Fishers – even if 74 minutes of the opera remain largely unknown.
(The Pearl Fishers’ Duet only) Jussi Björling (tenor); Robert Merrill (baritone); RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra; Renato Cellini (conductor).