It turned out to be a mood-changing experience last night as the art of opera injected Melbourne’s season of outdoor COVID-safe live performance with its intoxicating grip at the iconic Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), I must say, doesn’t usually come to mind when I consider my favourites in the repertoire. That said, taking away the trimmings of sets and costumes, which often portray its ancient Ceylonese exoticism awkwardly, means the rich and wondrous score is highlighted. And Victorian Opera showcased it at its best with wave upon wave of deeply satisfying music and a superlative local cast.

Kathryn Radcliffe and Stephen Marsh in Victorian Opera's The Pearl FishersKathryn Radcliffe and Stephen Marsh in Victorian Opera’s The Pearl Fishers. Photo © Charlie Kinross

Under The Bowl’s stretched steel shell, in cool but comfortable, windless conditions, the music resonated with a combination of warmth, sensitivity and vigour as Artistic Director Richard Mills led Orchestra Victoria’s more than 50 musicians on stage. The playing was faultless, the music perfectly balanced and the tempi ever so thoughtful. From start to finish, the hard yards of preparation delivered meaning for what was just one performance only.

Bizet was a mere 24 years old at the time of the opera’s premiere in 1863. The score exhibits wide-ranging colour and inventiveness, with much evidence of the signature he was to put on what is now the most popularly performed opera, Carmen, composed 12 years later. The plot has its downfalls but the work’s assortment and arrangement of arias, duets, trios and choruses add both engagement and dramatic structure. Furthermore, passions are in good supply in its story focusing on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty between two fishermen, Zurga and Nadir, who are in love with the same women, the priestess Leïla, who has sworn an oath of obedience and chastity.

In the first highlight of the night when Stephen Marsh stepped out as the newly elected leader of the fishing village, he owned the role and armed his character with a commanding presence as Zurga. With every new role, Marsh goes from strength to strength, his flexing and smoky baritone a treasure to hear. Marsh seized every moment, including Act 3’s introspective opening, L’orage s’est calmé, as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy, to which Marsh gave poignancy and depth.

Carlos E. Bárcenas in Victorian Opera's The Pearl FishersCarlos E. Bárcenas in Victorian Opera’s The Pearl Fishers. Photo © Charlie Kinross

Passion and prowess came with Carlos E. Bárcenas’ impressive interpretation of Zurga’s returned friend, Nadir. Together and rivetingly in an early crowd-pleaser, Bárcenas and Marsh explored their characters’ friendship in one of opera’s most recognisable duets, Act 1’s Au fond du temple saint. Not long after, Nadir soliloquises on having broken his vow to Zurga and having pursued his love for Leïla. To this, in Je crois entendre encore, Bárcenas brought enormous gravity and penetrating form to the moment, his tenor agile and complex and his use of falsetto exemplary.

Portrayed with an elegantly poised demeanour and touch of vulnerability, soprano Kathryn Radcliffe sang Leïla with radiance and clarity, her Act 2 aria Comme autrefois especially mellifluous and seductive as Leïla ponders the times when she would secretly meet Nadir. Veiled and wearing a flowing gown in virginal white, one could also muse on Leïla’s plight, as she carries an unborn child.

Completing the line-up of principals, the familiar authority and thundering bass-baritone of Teddy Tahu Rhodes added significant weight to the high priest of Brahma, Nourabad, and, from the rear, the 28-member chorus were a combined strength of divinely sung fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses, moulding every phrase from the jubilant to the funereal with excellence.

Bar Leïla, the attire for the evening was black formals in what was more a concert performance than semi-staged as advertised. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s subtle stage direction did lend a guiding light (one couldn’t rely on the hard-to-see English titles) and the essence of the opera shone so much the better for it.

Less than a couple of hours before the performance, I was on my couch feeling a little lethargic and nonchalant after a busy day. But then came that mood change and the beat that live opera can instigate. Much appreciated Victorian Opera! Oh, and let’s hope, too, that The Bowl becomes a regular venue for a little season of opera in the future.

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