Live Review: The Pearl Fishers
Opera in the Park
Supreme Court Gardens WA
Saturday, February 18

A warm breeze sweeps through the Supreme Court Gardens of Western Australia, lifting the excited murmur of the gathering crowd up into the balmy, summer air and over the waters of the Swan River. Armed with picnic blankets, food hampers, fold-out chairs and tables, people of all backgrounds and ages – opera aficionados and amateurs alike – prepare to be delighted by this year’s City of Perth Opera in the Park, with the WA Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

This year’s offering is Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion and directed by Stuart Maunder. Now having reached its 21st production, Opera in the Park is a unique event on Perth’s cultural calendar, taking place in an outdoor venue in the heart of Perth’s City Centre and giving the people of WA’s capital the opportunity to see an artform (Opera) that may otherwise lie beyond their reach – for free.

Popular though it may be, Opera in the Park makes few creative compromises, staging productions with complete respect for the artistic material – both dramatic and musical.

The Pearl Fishers, Bizet’s tale of forbidden love in Ancient Ceylon, is no exception to the rule. Opera in the Park productions effectively lie at a midway point between the conventional, fully staged opera and the oratorio-style concert format. While there are costumes, choreography and cast members that move freely onstage, the lighting and set design is minimal and the orchestra is clearly visible behind the dramatic action.

This semi-staged setup presents a clear challenge – how does one overcome obvious physical constraints in order to create a theatrically and visually satisfying result? Maunder draws on simple yet effective devices that stand in for a more conventional set design – like a set of curtains at the back of the stage that changes colour in order to underscore pivotal points in the drama.

The core cast is strong and works beautifully as an ensemble unit. Sitiveni Talei is an imperious and dignified Zurga, the story’s scorned lover, who loses the woman of his dreams to his once-close friend. Tenor Henry Choo brings a childlike naïvité and a sweetly delicate higher register to the role of Nadir. And Katja Webb’s Leïla is mesmerising; at once impassioned and vulnerable, strong-willed and tender. Her voice soars majestically in its higher range and meanders soulfully in its lower. Her tone is pure and full, her vibrato exquisitely controlled.

Opera in the Park is essentially a family event – both in its inclusiveness of all age groups and in its appeal to the wider community of non-opera goers. In this sense, it is plays an essential part in Perth’s cultural life. For many, it serves as an introduction to a genre that might repel some viewers, fascinate others, and leave some indifferent, leading them to distance themselves from it, delve deeper into it, or continue encountering it only once a year in the idyllic setting of the Supreme Court Gardens of WA.