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.

 

Lucia just clears the hurdles

LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR

Victorian Opera

Her Majesty’s Theatre

April 11-21

Lucia di Lammermoor (victorianopera.com.au)

We’ve been spoiled in this country as far as this Donizetti opera is concerned; well, when I say ‘we’, I mean those who came of age in the middle of the last century and so experienced the performances  –  live, filmed, recorded – of Joan Sutherland in the title role.   Certainly, the challenge has attracted many great coloratura singers, but the Australian soprano’s interpretation throughout the 60s and into the 70s remains unparallelled for its staggering fluency and sheer technical brilliance; her Mad Scene is the standard by which all other sopranos are judged and – largely due to the precision and stinging truth of her fioriture – everybody else comes up wanting.

So, in a sense, Jessica Pratt was up against it when she took on the role for the state company’s big ‘grand’ opera for the 2016 season.   Yes, she has sung the role many times: Zurich, Florence, Cantanzano, Genoa, Naples, Tel Aviv, Novara, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Ravenna, La Scala, Amsterdam – houses large and not-so-large, major opera venues and some minor ones.   She brings to the role a good deal of experience, then, and she is definitely the outstanding voice in this production.   But the role is not an easy one to negotiate, especially with that assurance necessary to put an audience at ease.  This Lucia shows an awareness of the dramatic traits needed to convince us of the character’s flight into madness, yet the singer’s efforts fail to convince.

Pratt was labouring against some disadvantages in this theatre which, thanks to its plush furnishings, has little resonance on offer to help with dynamic subtleties.   Indeed, when conductor Richard Mills began the work’s prelude, the orchestra might as well have been playing from behind the scenes; the horns, faultlessly though they articulated, sounded improbably distant throughout the night while the string ensemble, about 30 in number, made a small sound, a murmur for the most part.   Like her six associate principals, Pratt also had to cope with Henry Bardon’s original set(s), which sits above a long set of steps, meaning that access to the front-of-stage was limited, matters not helped by Pratt stumbling on her first appearance while coming down a smoke-filled stairway to her mother’s tomb-site.

Her opening Regnava nel silenzio aria came across competently enough if the rapid semiquavers and trills here and in the ensuing Quando rapita were treated with care rather than infused with an invigorating confrontation. The following duet with Carlos E. Barcenas’ Edgardo again impressed more for the effort than by any communication of devoted affection.   Both singers saw each other through the Verranno sull’aure duet with stolidity, punctuated by some over-emphatic delivery of the music’s highest notes.  Better came in Lucia’s confrontation with her brother Enrico, Jose Carbo’s baritone a confident foil for Pratt during the Soffriva nel pianto pages, even if the heroine’s surrender seemed too rapidly accomplished, the personality here presented rather unlikely to cave in without registering more emotional discomfort.

At some stages of the Mad Scene, Il dolce suono, Pratt impressed for her vocal work, notably her imagining of the wedding ceremony she desires with Edgardo, beginning at  Ardon gl’incensi.  But the more Donizetti’s vocal part accumulated force and impetus, from Spargi d’amaro pianto on, the more laboured the output, as though each problem required extra determination.  The whole point of Lucia’s mental collapse lies in the delusions she lives through and the visions she sees, all of which combine into an organized vocal flight towards an eventually physically unbearable delirium.   When this process sounds less than freely flowing, the dramatic impact is sapped until only the negotiation of hurdles is left to engross one’s attention.

Michael Petruccelli’s brief appearance as Lucia’s one-night-stand husband Arturo showed an agreeably light tenor voice in command of its responsibilities, a light in a dark place as his costume made him appear like a refugee from Der Rosenkavalier in the middle of the setting’s Hibernian gloom.   More to the point, his vocal production displayed flexibility and dynamic nuance – much appreciated among a set of male principal characters who, like Michael Lapina’s Normanno, remained on one interpretative level for most of the evening, whether for solos, smaller ensemble numbers or contributing to the opera’s splendid sextet, Chi mi frena.  Jud Arthur sang the role of Raimondo, the Ashton family’s resident Calvinist chaplain, but found projection in this theatre difficult, notably in his dialogue with Lucia; a more firmly contoured vocal contribution might have aided in persuading the onlooker of the draining force that brought about the girl’s surrender to family and spiritual pressure.

Cameron Menzies’ direction broke no new ground, every move predictable even in the Mad Scene where Pratt’s actual stage movement missed out on using the music itself to underline her mental disturbance.   Chorus groupings ensured that each member had an unencumbered view of the conductor – which worked some of the time.  But you had to wonder about what was going on after the first chorus, where the male Ashton clan members, headed by Normanno, encourage each other to keep searching the estate in order to uphold a sort of household security, only for them all to stand around listening to the plot-establishing private conversation between Normanno, Enrico and Raimondo.

Not to be outdone, the pit produced one of the night’s sonic surprises.  The composer originally called for a glass harmonica to accompany Lucia’s escape into insanity, but the San Carlo producers made him change this instrumentation for two flutes.  Perhaps the novel sound didn’t travel well in the Naples theatre; it certainly didn’t do very well on this occasion, either – otherworldly, it could have been but, in this presentation, it might have been played in the Her Majesty’s foyer for all the impact it exerted on the aural character of the scene.

A well-dressed chorus fitted into the general ambience of the production by sounding half-hearted in pretty much every scene except the two Per te immenso and D’immenzo giubilo outbursts of merriment either side of the fateful wedding, and the unexpectedly forceful male reinforcements in the graveyard scene who, for all their doleful vehemence, are constrained to stand around uselessly while Edgardo commits a spectacularly unimpeded suicide at the final curtain.   Of the small dash of choreography that some members were involved in, there is little to remark except that it took place.

If you were looking for a straight-down-the-line, no-nonsense account of Lucia di Lammermoor, you could hardly ask for better than this production.  In fact, it looked like every other version I’ve seen, if somewhat mustier than most.   But, like all bel canto creations, this opera requires highly gifted singers to carry it off, particularly if the dramatic interplay stays on an unsurprising, time-honoured melodramatic level.   In this instance, I don’t believe that the talent onstage carried the work’s performance level beyond an also-ran standard.