The Pearlfishers review (Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House)

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It’s not particularly controversial to suggest that, dramatically, Bizet’s The Pearlfishers leaves a lot to be desired. At the time of the opera’s composition, Bizet was an emerging talent and leapt at the opportunity to write the score for this pre-written libretto from Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, set on the exotic island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Of course, the libretto is undercooked and has a series of major faults, the least of which is the dramatic structure — not only do the biggest events in the story happen off-stage, but the major turning point is at the beginning of the second act, which leaves little actual action or plot development for the remainder of the second and the third.

Then there’s the matter of the clumsy version of Ceylon presented — much of the story centres around the villagers’ Hinduism, even though Ceylon has been a predominately Buddhist nation for the last millennium. It’s also set in the seaside city of Kandy, which is actually slap-bang in the middle of the island, and nowhere near the sea — 19th century opera, hey?

It’s quite a challenge for any director and Michael Gow has brought a fresh and curious pair of eyes to this production, which is broadly traditional but has some rather radical changes at its core.

He has changed the two men in the love triangle from local pearl fishers to European colonisers, taking advantage of the villagers, sending them out on deadly pearling expeditions while they profit off the riches of the beautiful seaside village.

While the inexplicable Hinduism is still there, Gow has worked with designer Robert Kemp to create an authentic-feeling (I’m really no expert) version of Ceylon, without the usual fetishising of Asian culture. It’s still colourful and beautiful, with the villagers wearing saris in yellows and deep oranges, but there’s an appealing restraint to the design.

There is one big question hanging over this production — did Opera Australia need a new traditional production of the piece when Ann-Margret Petterson’s 2000 production has been presented just a few years ago very successfully? It seems an odd choice but, to my mind, Gow’s production is superior; even if it doesn’t have the lavish physical beauty of Petterson’s, the emotional stakes are more clearly defined and it stands up as well to intellectual interrogation as any production of The Pearlfishers might.

Although the first act is rather static and it takes until the second for the dramatic stakes to rise, the characters make consistent and understandable (if not justifiable) choices — rather than explaining Zurga’s extreme and sudden changes of heart as just some strange, exotic cultural tick, Gow finds the true extent of his delusion, madness and jealousy.

The production is blessed with Jose Carbo in that role — he leaps ferociously into what is, at times, quite a high sing for a baritone. As the wealthy European, Carbo is the king of kings on the island of Ceylon, but when his supremacy is challenged by his friend (turned romantic rival) Nadir’s presence, he becomes more than a little unhinged. Carbo is required to hold the stage on his own for a lot of the third act, the first scene of which is almost entirely devoted to his internal turmoil. He manages to communicate all of that to the audience intimately but clearly.

Along with Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik as Nadir, he conjures up the requisite chemistry for their act one duet — far and away the most famous piece from the opera. In fact, there’s so much chemistry between the pair that you do wonder if Zurga’s jealousy has a little more to do with his affection for Nadir than Leila (a valid reading of the libretto, and one which actually lends the piece greater dramatic heft).

Breslik has a very attractive lyric tenor and while his top feels a little insecure in that first act duet, his performance of the aria Je crois entendre encore (which surely ranks amongst Bizet’s greatest compositions) is sensitive and irresistible.

Ekaterina Siurina is excellent at the centre of this love triangle, giving a full-blooded and dignified reading of the character. While there’s some occasional roughness around the edges in the opening act, she reveals extraordinary technique and control as the performance goes on, tackling all of Bizet’s vocal runs brilliantly.

But really every element of the score sounds gorgeous in this production under French conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, who has become an audience favourite at OA in recent years. Along with the orchestra, he finds the full richness of the score, lithely drawing out Bizet’s infectious musical themes (perhaps more than any other operatic composer, Bizet’s way of using motifs has influenced contemporary musical theatre), as well as the dynamics of the orchestrations.

While Gow has put in the homework to make sure that this is more than just a concert with something pretty to look at (which is the temptation when the score is gorgeous but the libretto half-baked), he also knows how to pull back dramatically and let the music shine when necessary. The big chorus numbers are exceptional choral music — performed beautifully by the OA chorus — and he resists the temptation to stuff the stage with spectacular pageantry, and just lets the singers sing.

And really, the music is the only reason why this opera is remounted again and again, no matter how smartly directors might update it. It’s certainly worth catching for that aspect alone.

The Pearlfishers is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 12. Featured image by Keith Saunders

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