REVIEW: The Pearlfishers | Opera Theatre, Sydney
In any word association test, say Bizet and you’ll get Carmen. But a decade before there was The Pearlfishers.
Just as Carmen has an exotic setting, historically and geographically, so too is this opera, but in Ceylon, with Hindu iconography to match. Indeed, John Conklin’s design is quite magical, painterly and superbly evocative: scenes and scenery emerging, progressively, through diaphanous curtains, which echo the veil worn by the mysterious ‘wise and beautiful’ woman; an extensive palette centred around blue and red; flaming torches burning like the passion of the lovers, struggling to keep their chaste pledge; majestic, watchful images of Brahma. All lit handsomely by Nigel Levings, of course. Actually, ‘handsomely’ is way too modest a descriptor. Levings’ contribution is so profound as to account for much of the impressiveness and certainly ‘depth of field’.
I only reviewed this production February last, so it was an interesting prospect to revisit it, with fresh eyes. Of course, the context was quite different: the customary stomping-ground of the Sydney Opera House as against The Domain. Luise Napier was holding the directorial reins for Ann-Margret Petterson then, but now Matt Barclay has revived Petterson’s interpretation. There’s been a change of conductor too, with Guillaume Tourniaire on the podium. And the orchestra returns to the nest, after its sojourn in The Studio the other evening for Beresford’s Die Tote Stadt.
In February, I’d no qualms about the production musically, but reservations theatrically, most of which were probably to do with the scale of the event and the rather static scenes presented: enough colour, perhaps, but not nearly enough movement to hold interest for those up against the back fence; mega-screens notwithstanding. While I don’t resile from my observations then, this time ’round was an entirely different experience; doubtless the production was never designed for the stadium-like stage in The Domain. Of course, a better adaptation then was implicated. But this is both compensation for my earlier disappointment and justice for all the creatives concerned.
The opulence of Petterson’s vision, so diluted in the earlier circumstances, quickly becomes apparent. A mid-blue curtain depicting fold of drapery reveals its translucence and yields to reveal an old man quietly enjoying a stiff whisky, surrounded only by his memories and memorabilia. He haunts the narrative and returns for the epilogue, lending the notion we’ve been privy to a dream. This duplicity between reality and imagination has more doubt and shadows cast by the appearance and reappearance of an ornate stage setting, alluding to an opera within the opera: Zurga has returned home after a long stint as governor of a French colony in India, by way of the Paris Opera. The performance he’s seen (and the whisky, I suspect) has seduced him into a somewhat morose nostalgia for his long lost friend, Nadir. Without seeking to be controversial or mischievous, a gay reading of this friendship is possible and Petterson subtly disperses breadcrumbs, it seems to me, in order that we might follow the trail. While this might, or mightn’t, have been intended at the time of its creation, restating it in the 21st century gives us licence for such speculations. Not that it’s any the lesser if we are to assume an intimate, brotherly bond between the two protagonists instead.
I waxed fairly lyrically as regards the cast of principals in The Pearlfishers last outing and, despite the fact the lineup has changed radically, that’s very much my inclination now as well. Amongst a youthful cast, Andrew Jones’ Zurga, for example, is a veritable vocal tour de force. He’s regarded as one of Australia’s most outstanding young bass-baritones but, young or old, he’s up there. His delivery is refined, finessed, has such musicality and seems so downright effortless. It’s an aural pleasure to listen to him. The same might be said of (Nadir) Henry Choo’s mellifluous tenor and, when the two are heard together, as in the famous ‘Pearlfisher’ or ‘friendship’ duet, it’s sublime. I don’t know that I’ve experienced better vocal casting as, in at least one memorable sequence, Nicole Car’s soprano sits wonderfully aloft, buoyed by Choo and Jones. Heaven. I was in heaven. Mind you, as impressive as she was, overall, I did find her soprano a little hard-edged at times, but perhaps this was just in contrast to Choo’s light, buttery lyric coloratura tenor, which allows melody to shine through and be the hero. The elongated and reverberant Jud Arthur returns as Nourabad, the forbidding high priest. His commanding baritone is de rigueur.
Jones may’ve stumbled into singing on his way to becoming an actor, but it’s Choo who really charms and engages on that score. Tourniaire beamed after the performance, as well he might, with that splendid orchestra at his beck and call. Both did immense justice to Bizet’s lavish and memorable score, with its simple, elegant, recurring motif. Rosetta Cook’s choreography (rehearsed, as before, by Andrew Frith) added scent and spice, with dancers wrapped in sheer russet I Dream Of Jeannie veils.
All in all, it goes to show just how important context and staging is to the success of a production. Taken out of its habitat, Petterson’s Pearlfishers was spectacularly unsuccessful. Returned to it, it’s quite the reverse. It’s not histrionic; it has no delusions of grandeur. It’s performance art, with an admirable equilibrium between the two.
Which leave the opera itself. Bizet was just 25 when the work premiered and yet to be accepted into the Parisian scene. He’d been commissioned to write Les Pecheurs De Perles on the strength of having triumphed in the Prix De Rome. Although the public embraced the work warmly (and fellow composers, for that matter), critics were less kind.
Bloody critics. They were wrong then. But right, now, if they reckon, as I do, this to be one of the most underestimated operas in the canon.
The details: The Pearlfishers plays seven more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 4. Tickets on the company website.