May 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Pearlfishers | State Theatre, Melbourne

Jason Whittaker

Former Crikey editor and publisher

Come for the pretty duet. Stay for the sumptuous design and stage trickery. Just don’t expect to feel anything.

It’s poor form to quote a review in a review. But there may be nothing more to say about The Pearlfishers, Georges Bizet’s fledgling pre-Carmen work, after The Guardian reviewed an English National Opera production last year. As Andrew Clements spat:

“If it did not include one of the most popular of all operatic lollipops — the tenor-and-baritone duet Au Fond du Temple Saint — surely no one would bother too much with The Pearlfishers. It would be consigned to semi-obscurity, along with Bizet’s other lesser known stage works…

“But it does contain that duet, and so companies feel obliged to put the work on stage every so often, regardless of its cringingly awful libretto, cardboard-thin characters and scarcely credible plot.”

Fishers was a flop when it was first performed. And almost 150 years later you won’t find many among the opera set who will list it among their favourites.

Carmen‘s love triangle burned passionately, its narrative sweeping, its finale heartbreaking. Fishers — Bizet’s most successful opera after his final gypsy hit, among a dozen rarely-performed works — flops around like a fish out of water, with barely any life to speak of. The bromance between fishermen Zurga and Nadir in exotic Ceylon is more arousing than their love for beautiful priestess Leïla. And for three long, culturally-insensitive acts, as The Grey Lady once wrote of a New York City Opera production, “not very much happens but takes a long time to do it”.

And so reviving the French somewhat-farce seems, indulgently, an exercise in trying to craft something from very little. In the design, at least, Opera Australia’s 11-year-old production, from Swedish director Ann-Margret Pettersson (Luise Napier oversees this remount), is still capable of spellbinding audiences.

Its vision is splendid, with gorgeous sets from international designer John Conklin — some of the most impressive I’ve seen in OA’s repertoire — and Clare Mitchell’s garishly beautiful costumes, swathing the cast in the glinting gold and scarlet reds and virginal whites of this sub-continental colonial fantasy. Nigel Levings’ clever lighting design adds a touch of magic (and an element of depth lacking in the narrative).

Luke Gabbedy (Zurga) and Henry Choo (Nadir), two accomplished younger Australian performers, relish their famous duet and work off each other well. And Emma Matthews, the brightest star in OA’s galaxy, will draw audiences as Leïla. Her voice echoes sweetly in a losing battle to flesh out an unsympathetic role. The chorus has room to shine in this opera, and they do, under stalwart chorus master Michael Black and the assured baton of Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo with his fine Orchestra Victoria players.

They do justice to their harmonious lollipop, Gabbedy and Choo. But The Pearlfishers may rot your teeth in the process.

The details: The Pearlfishers is at the State Theatre, Arts Centre for one more performance (May 16). Tickets on the company website.

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  1. REVIEW: Lakme | Opera Theatre, Sydney | Curtain Call

    […] referred to, was very much de rigueur at the time (think, also, by way of example, of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers) and, if audience reaction’s anything to go by, is still quite fashionable now. Proof lies in […]

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