Georges Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles
Les pêcheurs de perles, or The Pearl Fishers, would be a great 'starter' opera for someone who wanted to try an opera for the first time. It's relatively short at two and a half hours (that time includes two intermissions) and very fast-paced, with a plot full of adventure, action, and the 19th century embrace of Oriental exoticism.
Two friends, Zurga and Nadir, are reunited after several years apart. Although they were best friends during their childhood, their relationship became strained when the two men fell in love with the same woman. Although it was hard, they mutually agreed to step away from the woman rather then risk their bond. However, neither man has forgotten the mysterious priestess Leïla, and when she reappears in their lives Nadir's will is not strong enough to turn his back on her a second time. She returns his love, but the jealous Zurga punishes them both with death by fire: Nadir, for breaking his vow, and Leïla for failing in her duties as priestess. At heart, however, Zurga is a noble man, and to save his friend and their beloved from the flames he makes a terrible, desperate sacrifice.
BFFs forever 'til a woman gets involved.
The Opera San Jose production was beautiful. The lush costumes and brilliant sets recall the legendary Orient that appears again and again in the Romantic paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. I mean, it's not Ceylon/Sri Lanka as it appeared, historically, but rather the beautiful fairyland of silk, stone idols and angry pagan gods that inspire the story. Some of the liberties taken with the story are certainly uncomfortable - clearly, the original writers of the libretto knew nothing about Hinduism or Sri Lanka - but the strength of the friendship between Zadir and Zurga carries the story, and Bizet's music makes it absolutely compelling.
(Although, as my dad dryly observed, "The two best songs get used up in the first act; everything feels slightly disappointing after that.")
I think this is the first time I've ever seen The Pearl Fishers; it's not particularly common, especially compared to repertoire standards like La Traviata, Madame Butterfly or Bizet's great classic, Carmen. I wonder why? It's got far more adventure and action than the usual opera, but the melodrama and emotion is definitely present. I got a real kick out of watching it!