Even though it would be another ten years until he wrote his hit-packed opera, Carmen, George Bizet’s early effort, The Pearlfishers, written when he was just 24, provided Bizet with the opportunity to demonstrate that he was already a dab hand at writing a good tune.
Despite it’s seriously flawed libretto which pays little attention to the realities of the exotic location in which it is set, and into which Bizet had had no input, The Pearlfishers nevertheless contains much beautiful music including a beautiful duet for two male singers which has become of the most popular operatic arias ever written.
Set in colonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, the storyline concerns a close friendship between a pearl fisherman, Zurga, and his friend, Nadir, which is threatened by their mutual infatuation for a young virgin priestess, Leila. Both the men had heard Leila singing in a temple and fallen for her. But to preserve their friendship, they make a pact to forget Leila and go on with their lives.
But it turns out that Nadir has lied to Zurga. Sometime previously, he and Leila had spent the night together, presumably singing arias. So when Leila, accompanied by the high Priest, Nourabad, unexpectedly arrives in their village, it’s not too long before she and Nadir arrange to meet in the temple where Nourabad has organised her accommodation.
Predictably, as he leaves the temple after visiting Leila, Nadir is captured by Nourabad, and when Zurga finds out about their assignation he is so enraged that he commands the villagers to kill them both.
Michael Gow’s handsome, though rather stolid, new production of The Pearlfishers keeps this story intact except for one major change. The three male characters in the story are now Europeans who are exploiting the locals. Zurga has become a pearl dealer, his friend Nadir, an animal hunter, and Nourabad, a local profiteer. This change certainly heightens the dramatic impact, but also adds its own illogicality’s.
However, instead of dwelling on the flaws in the libretto, Gow has wisely opted to present the story in a series of carefully positioned, uncluttered stagings which insure that the singers are always in the most vocally advantageous stage positions to allow the audience to focus on savouring the full beauty of Bizet’s music.
This works wonderfully, because with four exceptional singers in the principal roles, the excellent Opera Australia Chorus, and the full resources of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra at his disposal, conductor Guillaume Tourniaire has taken advantage of this approach to extract a finely nuanced and carefully detailed reading of the score which reveals often surprising, unexpected colours and dynamics, even in the most familiar areas.
The infamous In the Depths of the Temple gets a gloriously passionate performance from Jose Carbo (Zurga) and Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik (Nadir), both revelling in the opportunity to exploit their unique vocal contributions and demonstrate why this duet has earned its place in operatic history.
Carbo, sporting a shaggy beard, gives a strongly sung performance as the gone-troppo, slightly wild-eyed pearl dealer, Zurga. Making his first appearances with Opera Australia, as the handsome young animal hunter, Nadir, Breslik, also impressed with his superb interpretation of another lovely aria, I Hear as in a Dream, which almost rivals In the Depths of the Temple as an operatic ear-worm.
As the priestess, Leila, the object of their shared attentions, Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina, also makes an impressive Opera Australia debut. Her warm stage presence and stunning creamy soprano voice are displayed to great advantage in her dreamy solos and dramatic duets with both Zurga and Nadir.
Though somewhat under-utilised as the villainous Nourabad, Daniel Sumegi nevertheless made effective use of his great voice and commanding presence to complete an outstanding quartet of principals.
However, despite exceptional singing from the four excellent principals, it is the Opera Australia chorus which steals the show. Costumed in glowing reds, browns and yellows, and arranged in rows in Robert Kemps impressive decaying temples, it rattles the rafters with superbly detailed harmonies, providing some of the most memorable highlights of this remarkably satisfying production.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 20 January 2016 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 12 March 2016
For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Pavol Breslik (Nadir) and José Carbó (Zurga) in Opera Australia’s production of The Pearlfishers – photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens