Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Finely cast and musically tender but why another new production of The Pearlfishers from Opera Australia?

Pavol Breslik (Nadir) and the Opera Australia Chorus
Opening night of Opera Australia's new production of Bizet's The Pearlfishers saw a disappointing attendance at the Sydney Opera House last Friday evening. Frankly, I wouldn't have thought that Opera Australia either needed a new production of The Pearlfishers or present it quite so soon. Director Ann-Margret Pettersson's dreamy and sensitive production, which premiered in 2000, was last seen in 2011 and still had a few solid breaths in it for some future revival.

On the other hand, New York's Metropolitan Opera (which presents more than 20 productions a year) has only just greeted the work with open arms after an absence from the stage of 100 years which also seems incredulous. Widely recognised as much for its striking, mellifluous music and one of opera's most loved duets, as for its dramatic failings, it continues to be one of the repertoire's curious works that rarely seem to shed any further light on its characters. If/when it does, it is often inconsequential.

Bizet was just shy of his 25th birthday at the time of the opera's premiere in Paris in 1863 and would have been well aware of the criticisms. Part of the problem lies in the thinly veneered characters, overuse of a chorus that provides little dramatic propulsion and a final scene that has befuddled many an interpreter. Bizet could hardly be blamed for the shortfalls that plague Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré's libretto, but let praise be bestowed for his ability and attempt at turning a pudding into a soufflé. Regardless, it has held onto repertoire status as an exotic, escapist journey.

José Carbó as Zurga
Opera Australia's new production by director Michael Gow at least heads in the right direction in building a greater sense of depth to the principal character roles, but in the end it's still the musical and vocal quality together with exotic visual stimulation that ultimately keeps the work breathing. It is blessed by a superb cast and a performance underscored by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire's refined and tender interpretation. On opening night, with unhurried tempi, Tourniaire drew elegance from the fine musicianship of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, supporting his soloists attentively and allowing the Australian Opera Chorus to ring magnificently.

No longer fishermen friends, Nadir and Zurga appear as European colonialists and, together with the thuggish Nourabar (who 'steals' the role from a voiceless wandering geriatric high priest), are entrenched at home in their exotic 19th century Ceylonese setting. It doesn't come without flaws and it adds complications to the village politics, but it does give foreground to the main characters.

Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik gives Nadir adventure-seeking spontaneity and sprightly romantic charm. One of Europe's more adept performers and charismatic singers, Breslik made the long-haul trip to Australia to take the role but doesn't get the chance to exhibit the full extent of his capabilities. Nonetheless, Breslik's signature exuberance and youthful, clear and wholesome tenor were impressive as was the sympathetic and reflective power of the Act I's pensive aria "À cette voix...Je crois entendre encore".

Seeming to control the local pearl industry from behind a desk, Australian baritone José Carbó stood aloft as the fuzzy-bearded Zurga with an unflinchingly fine performance. A voice burnished, resonant and firmly planted, Carbó gave meaning and expressivity to every line in his vow of faithfulness to his friendship with Nadir over their rivalry for the same woman. Carbó's gripping rendition of Act III's aria, "L'orage est calmé...O Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge", in which he sings of remorse for ordering the deaths of Leila and Nadir for having broken their vows, was a performance highlight in which his internal turmoil was deeply felt.

Ekaterina Siurina (Leila) and Pavol Breslik (Nadir)
Leila herself, seems more punished than welcomed as the virgin priestess to which Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina brought an intensity to the role not often seen. Even concealed under a veil she emits no behavioural joy in her sacrifice to Brahma - passion was flickering and she would emerge defiant while following her heart in her allegiance of love for Nadir. Ekaterina's supple, multi-layered tonal colours and delightfully fluid coloratura gave breadth to her Leila, making her attractiveness to the spirited Nadir entirely convincing.

As Nourabad, Daniel Sumegi almost makes believe his relationship to Leila is one of an unforgivingly stern father, growling and chastising with unrelenting guttural bass, but it is never obviously apparent who this heavyweight really is.

Sadly, it's hard not to forget Act I's deadpan direction, ordinary design and stark lighting. On a flat stage, an incongruous armchair sits in front of a small shrine within a walled courtyard and a lurid tin-foil sea glitters in the background. Robert Kemp's set and costume designs, however, are far more pleasing in Acts II and III's grand ornate temple confines and Zurga's colonial shuttered study sporting wall-mounted taxidermic kill. Together with Matt Scott's more thoughtfully considered and evocative lighting design (under which the tin-foil sea glittered magically) greater visual success arrived. Gow's direction of his principal artists burst forth with visceral strength but the Opera Australia Chorus seemed forgotten. Suffering from an overall inertness, they often appeared clumsily characterless in their saffron sarongs despite their glorious, impassioned singing.

Standing out from the crowd, I also wanted to forget the two near-naked men making an appearance as processional guardians when Leila made her first entrance, but then they returned as staged fighters in dance and combat in front of a bloodthirsty crowd in Act III. The reference they make to Nadir and Zurga in the first place as admirers, then as jealous rivals, was unmistakeable but unnecessary. And what of the opera's best known Act I aria ,"Au fond du temple saint"? Breslik and Carbó, lost in their own gazes and then coming together as one, dutifully impressed with the power of music and their vow of faithfulness.

In the end, however, the characters get a little more bang and the music shines once again, but the production squeezes out other inconsistencies which make you wonder whether it's all worth the resources which could have better been put to more deserving causes.

Production photographs: Keith Saunders

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