Competent but bland

THE PEARL FISHERS

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Saturday May 7

Emma Matthews (Leila) and Dmitry Korchak (Nadir)
Emma Matthews (Leila) and Dmitry Korchak (Nadir)

Many commentators – not I, though the temptation is great – find this Bizet opera a piece of dubiously-coloured tripe: its plot illogical or, if you’re feeling kind, clumsy; the music’s quality unworthy and variable, apart from the soaring glory of the Act 1 tenor/baritone duet; the vocal writing itself, for both soloists and chorus, undistinguished in comparison with the brilliance blazing out of the score for Carmen 12 years later.   Most of these complaints can be debated, if not completely justified, but what can’t be gainsaid is the popularity of The Pearl Fishers over recent decades in this city.  For a time, hardly a year went by, it seemed, when either the Victorian Opera Company or the Australian Opera did not produce this work with the same fervour as both organizations showed some time later for The Magic Flute.

An awful lot depends on the three main principal singers.  Each gets plenty of ensemble work but also a splendid, character-establishing aria.   Nadir enjoys the finely-spun arches of Je crois entendre encore, a gift for any tenor who can produce a soft upper register.  On this premiere night, Dmitry Korchak missed out on conveying the inbuilt languor and ecstasy-in-remembrance that fills these pages.

The priestess Leila opens with coloratura, singing to protect the fishers at their work, but her main extended aria, Comme autrefois, has a full-bodied lyricism and an interesting pattern of phrase-lengths.   Emma Matthews performed this with restraint, probably too much so; still, like everybody else, she was constrained by the slow tempi exerted by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, a method of approach which meant that it was only half the time that singer and orchestra hit their cues simultaneously.   Jose Carbo sang a solid Zurga, making a dramatic meal of his late cavatina Nadir! . . . ami de mon jeune age which had the advantage of travelling securely across the footlights, as had all his singing since his early Act 1 appearance.

But the production’s most enjoyable singing came from the Opera Australia Chorus, in good shape vocally from the opening scene and consistently firm in articulation,  whether en masse or divided by gender.  In Michael Gow’s direction, the group stood about in a block, filling up the rear of the acting area or geometrically aligned across temple steps; not much imagination shown in such dispositions but they ensured that mutual support was continuous and the concept of a body acting with one mind came across persuasively at moments like the election of Zurga to the population’s leadership or the death-threats hurled at the exposed lovers Leila and Nadir in the final scene of Act 2.

For those of us with a sneaking affection for this opera, certain moments are anticipated, usually with expectations that are rarely realized.  Most of these are duets, like the substantial love-duet in the third scene of Act 2 that has an irresistible sweeping power, not particularly original in its layout yet compelling and vehement, just the thing for two lovers who have discovered each other at last.  Both Matthews and Korchak gave this section some much-needed animation, as also came across near the work’s end in the Zurga/Leila confrontation which brought out some fire in the soprano and a matching energy from Carbo, particularly at the point where he admits to his jealousy.

Michael Gow has reblocked the drama, turning both the male principals into middle-men of some kind, their dress that of the colonial administration rather than the original’s Sinhalese native-grown.  Right from the start, you’re led to question even the simplest matters, like why the fishers would elect Zurga their headman.  Nadir is always an outsider, a hermit-hunter by his own account, although in this personification he could have come fresh from the 19th century fleshpots of Western civilization in Kandy.   Why either would have at one time been hanging around Leila’s temple is a niggling question of behavioural probability.  Turning the priest Nourabad, sung at full throttle by Steven Gallop, into a sort of broker makes some sense, although why he also is dressed in a suit and at the same time can rouse the fishers to fury with menaces of divine vengeance adds to the plot’s oddities, rather than removing them.

But this production is short on subtleties, not least visually  as the sets by Robert Kemp emphasize the poverty of this community and, if anything, its lack of prosperity as the temples are overgrown with weeds.   Further inexplicabilities applied to the set mounted for Zurga’s bout of self-realization, suggestive of a white hunter’s bungalow in 19th century British Africa, complete with many hunting trophies (what has this pearl fisher-cum-entrepreneur been doing in his obviously copious free time?).

Still, as with all attempts to give a new vision to a work set in its time and place, the viewer has to exercise generosity.  In this case, I’m not sure that much has been gained by taking all three male principals out of the population; the social commentary suggested appears pretty ordinary, giving a fresh socio-economic layer to a work that profits both musically and dramatically by its own simplicity.  Maybe it would be more persuasive in this regard with a central quartet that displayed more comfort in their work.

The production has seven further performances, ending in a 1 pm  matinee on Saturday May 28.