Director from afar Ann-Margret Pettersson has given a new spin to the youthful Bizet’s opera in OQ’s presentation of the Opera Australia production. Zurga has become a superannuated French governor, reflecting on youth’s wild colonial adventures after coming home alone from a night at the Paris Opera. The action of the opera becomes his reminiscence.
It’s a clever device, which makes more palatable the fantasy-world of an Asian fishing village of nineteenth century European imagination, but is not without problems. Zurga is originally a Ceylonese fisherman chosen by his peers to be their spiritual and moral leader. Quite why they should choose a young French expat for such a role is puzzling.
The other new dimension of Pettersson’s work is the love triangle. It soon becomes clear that the baritone, Zurga, who traditionally vies with the tenor, Nadir, in loving the soprano, Leisa, is in this production rather more interested in the tenor than the soprano. Again, this is clever, and certainly not without plausibility given the intensity of the men’s famous Act I duet, but it puts the text to the test. Zurga’s sudden volte face at the end of Act II when on the point of sparing Nadir for his dalliance is the result of discovering the identity of Nadir’s beloved.
(Meanwhile, what will Pettersson do if she’s let loose on Puccini or Verdi? Will Scarpia’s consuming passion be Cavaradossi rather than Tosca? Will the Conte di Luna be more interested in Manrico than Leonora?)
Let’s face it. The Pearl Fishers is a rather insipid, jejune work, saved for posterity only by the deserved popularity of “From the depths of the temple”, unquestionably the greatest male duet of all time. It’s opera of a quality that deserves a performance, as a curiosity, only once a generation, yet it was last seen in Brisbane in the early ’90s. It is doubtful that it deserves all the creative effort and cost bestowed upon it for a production such as this one.
And indeed there has been no effort spared. There is much that is splendid in this production and well worth seeing. Sets and lighting work magnificently together. The dominant pattern is a series of receding frames, endowing a stereoscopic effect to the distant central image reminiscent of those once fashionable 3D slide viewers. It gives a uniquely exotic and mystical quality to the focal set, whether it is Hindu statue, cluster of palms, veiled priestess or burning village.
The large and fittingly clad chorus, boosted by extras, are skilfully deployed in a series of picturesque tableaux at key points of the opera which are quite striking.
Under Alexander Ingram the Queensland Orchestra give a confident and full-bodied sound, featuring exotic patternings, warm string work and Bizet’s interesting combination of woodwinds.
As Leila, soprano Lisa Russell looks every inch the exotic priestess who causes men to break their vows. Although limited in acting opportunities because of the formality of her role, she movingly portrays her tortured feelings in her Act III confrontation with Zurga. Throughout, her singing is radiant and controlled. David Wakeham’s Zurga is powerful and resonant in acting and voice, while David Hibbard’s bass-baritone high priest provides a strong anchor.
Visiting German tenor Christian Baumgartel did not seem on top of his role as Nadir on opening night. In the cavernous Lyric Theatre his lyric high tenor was constantly overwhelmed by orchestra or duet partners. This was most disappointing in the Act I duet “Au fond du temple saint”. But the fine quality of his voice could be discerned in the beautiful aria “Je crois entendre encore”.
Perhaps the most endearing part of the opera is the opening vision of venerable chorus master James Christiansen as the aged governor, sipping with great realism his scotch while pondering his youthful escapades. He can take much pride in the performance of his chorus in this, his last preparation after 13 magnificent years as Opera Queensland chorusmaster.