★★★★☆ Good ideas, good voices and great conducting help a rum old story.

This review was originally published on January 17, 2016.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
January 15, 2016

It’s fair to say that The Pearlfishers has had a chequered history. By the time his magnum opus Carmen caught the popular imagination, the composer had been dead a couple of years and looked set to become one of classical music’s one hit wonders. Written 12 years earlier, Les Pêcheurs de Perles was the 25-year-old Bizet’s first opera since winning the prestigious Prix de Rome. The public seemed to like it, as did Berlioz (always a fair guide), but the majority of the snooty Parisian critics pooh-poohed it for a range of solecisms: the plot was lame; it was too Wagnerian; Bizet had a nerve taking a bow on stage etc. etc. Caruso’s appearance as Nadir at the Met in 1916 (check the cast photo – still one of the silliest ever!) was part of a gradual revival in the opera’s fortunes. Nowadays, though still a relative rarity, it does get a major outing every decade of so and Opera Australia have long been fans – this is their second staging in a decade.

The problem facing any director has to be Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s B-grade libretto and what were the laisser-faire attitudes of the creators to place and race. Bizet accepted a bottom drawer text that was never originally intended to be set in Ceylon anyway and produced his score in record time, asking none of the questions that an experienced musical-dramatist ought to have done. For OA’s new production, Michael Gow has tackled the second of those obstacles head on. By making the three male principals Europeans, instead of the writers’ oriental fantasy we get an oriental fantasy seen through the eyes of the actual participants.

To an extent it works. Robert Kemp’s Victorian costumes and crumbling Hindu temples place the action in the mid-19th century and (tinfoil sea aside) it looks handsome if not quite lavish. The reds, browns and golds take light beautifully. In Gow’s revision Zurga becomes a colonial pearl merchant who has had too much sun, too much booze and gone well and truly ‘troppo’. His friend Nadir becomes a hunter (the mounted heads in act three show that both men enjoy the wholesale slaughter of the native fauna). Both are in love with an illusion – an exotic woman that neither has ever seen. Léïla thus becomes a more interesting creation, journeying from objectified woman to flesh-and-blood protagonist. Nadir’s clumsy transgression in the temple is a timely reminder that Westerners break religious custom at their peril. The translation of Nourabad from wicked Brahmin priest to opportunistic colonial trafficker is less successful, partially because his character has little real function in the original but also because it forces Gow to pop a wizened Brahmin onstage, frequently right next to Nourabad, to make sense of the religious sentiments in the script.

Ekaterina Siurina (Léïla) and Pavol Breslik (Nadir)

Creating a credible back-story and context for the characters is all well and good – it certainly gives the audience more to think about – but of course Gow is still saddled with the same old libretto. Its far-fetched coincidences and crucially its lack of any sort of character development for the male characters remains a problem. Likewise the sections where Bizet and his wordsmiths leave people on stage with dramatic egg on their faces. The act finales are a good case in point. The moment when Nadir recognises Léïla at the end of the first is an awkward dramatic misfire as is the final act’s dénouement when having come on screaming for blood, the chorus has no further comment to make while the condemned lovers sing their sweet duet of hope for a better afterlife.

Such insoluble problems mean that it’s often left to the music to justify a revival. If, like me, you’ve found the score a bit ‘in one ear and out the next’ when listened to on record I really would urge you to hear it as performed by this fine cast under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire. A specialist in Mozart and 19th-century French opera, his readings in Australia of Faust, Carmen, Eugene Onegin and the David McVicar Mozart series have impressed of late. The Pearlfishers is no exception. Again and again you are aware of colours in the orchestra or dynamic felicities that you may have missed in the past. There are elements of Wagner (the thematic intervals of the famous duet come back in several unexpected places), but it isn’t a sophisticated leitmotiv score. It nods backwards to Meyerbeer (especially in the recitative) as well as looking forward to Carmen, The Tales of Hoffmann and the tuneful but forgotten operas of Saint-Saëns. The young Bizet emerges as a master orchestrator – no wonder Berlioz was impressed. Not only that, Tourniaire is a highly sensitive hand on the tiller and draws out more atmosphere and drama in the score than you might think it has within it. Listen to his daring way with the famous duet. By stretching parts of it just far enough he breathes fresh life into an old chestnut (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor). Have those harp arpeggios and solo flute ever sounded so full of Eastern promise? He’s blessed in his endeavours by the fine contribution of the Opera Australia Chorus (a credit to Anthony Hunt) whose efforts reveal Bizet’s warm harmonies and who can turn on a dime from fierce protagonists to humble worshippers. They are in superb voice here and would be worth the ticket price alone.

José Carbó as Zurga

The cast of international and Australian singers impress too. In his OA debut Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik makes an ardent toned Nadir, his top notes especially glorious in that duet. He’s able to scale his voice down to a pharyngeal whisper for Je crois entendre encore – a killer aria with a ravishing high-lying melody that seldom goes above piano and is the sleeping hit of the score. In looks he’s the full romantic deal and capitalises on a certain shallowness in the textual writing by offering a good line in guilty brooding (though he could help the audience by lifting his eye line at times).

With his shaggy beard and haunted look José Carbó is every inch the Conradian bottom-of-a-bottle philosopher. His firm baritone cuts through the weightier textures that typify his music and with his top-notch diction he’s especially impressive in recitative. Occasionally the top of the voice feels a little grainy, but then so does the character. He does his best with his act three aria, though it’s one of the least inspired moments in the score, and he excels in his duets with both tenor and soprano.

Pavol Breslik (Nadir) and Ekaterina Siurina (Léïla) with the OA chorus

Comparisons are odious, but if I had to pick one I’d say the star of the night is Russian bel canto specialist Ekaterina Siurina. Her Léïla is warm and full-bodied with effortless control of Bizet’s melismatic writing and a fine display of coloratura that is always engaged with the text. In her reflective aria in the second act, Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre, she displays a gorgeous control of line. Dramatically she creates a sympathetic character and one that grows dimensionally as the drama progresses, particularly in the fine duets with first tenor and then baritone. Daniel Sumegi makes an imposing Nourabad but the character is entirely expendable and so poorly defined that he can do little more than threaten, snarl and growl. Vocally his sepulchral bass is perfectly cast but he tends towards the nasal and swallows the odd consonant.

To add some granularity to a star rating I’d offer up five for the maestro, four for his cast and three for the production (dragged down by the intransigent libretto). Well worth a look then, and if you want a evening that shows how Bizet might have revolutionised opera in France had he not been struck down at the tender age of 36, The Pearlfishers provides more than just an informative night out.

The Pearlfishers plays at the Arts Centre Melbourne until May 28