Apart from the sheer pleasure of being transported by Bizet’s fabulous music, experiencing different casts and witnessing the increasing assurance of some of the performers were among the benefits of repeated attendance at Melbourne Opera’s season of The Pearl Fishers.
In line with Melbourne Opera’s stated mission of offering valuable experience to young artists at the start of their careers, no less than three recent winners of the Herald-Sun Aria (Lee Abrahmsen, Barbara Zavros and Brenton Spiteri) were cast in leading roles. Also closely associated with this competition, both as a conductor and adjudicator, is Richard Divall. As a mentor for young singers and an expert on The Pearl Fishers, Divall’s knowledge, enthusiasm and exceptional sympathy for young singers made him an ideal conductor for these performances. At least three glorious Leilas: Yvonne Kenny, Eileen Hannan and Glenys Fowles have benefitted from his championing of this work and their talents in the past. Lee Abrahmsen and Barbara Zavros have now joined this illustrious list, each bringing different strengths to the role.
The opening night cast, which I saw on their second outing, gave an impressive account of this story of passion, jealousy, betrayal and friendship. As the two male components of the love triangle, friends and rivals Nadir (Brenton Spiteri) and Zurga (Phillip Calcagno) sing the most famous duet for tenor and baritone in opera: “In the Depths of the Temple”. Expectations were high and the singers rose to the occasion, followed by an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Each of the principal singers has one big aria. In Act I it is the tenor’s turn; and a notoriously difficult aria it is. There are few tenors who are able to manage the very high tessitura of “I Hear as in a Dream” without resorting to falsetto. American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is currently being adulated for being able to do so and Brenton Spiteri also demonstrated the rare talent of the so-called Rubini tenor in a beautifully controlled performance. His diction, as always, was exemplary.
The role of the virgin priestess Leila also makes considerable vocal demands in Act I as she prays to Brahma. Abrahmsen negotiated tricky coloratura passages beautifully as she wove wonderfully clean trills into the musical fabric. For a soprano whose voice resonates with lyric power a capacity for youthful musical delicacy marked her interpretation. Her Act II aria of nostalgia for times past and the following duet, when Nadir joins her despite the threat of discovery and death, were sung with beauty of tone as well as urgency and feeling. When they are inevitably caught the tension was heightened substantially by the commanding presence of Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as the high priest Nourabad. His statuesque figure alone was enough to intimidate; coupled with a rich voice of impressive dimensions, he was a frightening personification of righteous anger.
In Act III the focus is on Zurga, who has been elected leader of the village at the very beginning of the opera and has the final say as to whether the guilty pair should live or die. Although yet to develop his full potential in terms of vocal power, Phillip Calcagno gave a convincing portrayal of a man torn between remorse and a desire to punish the two who have wronged him. Both he and Abrahmsen made the most of the emotional recognition scene when Zurga realises that Leila had once saved his life.
This point in the opera was also a highlight for the alternative cast. Barbara Zavros is a less experienced and assured singer than Abrahmsen, but made a beautiful and very moving Leila. She has pure, rounded top notes and a gentle radiance – totally in keeping with the character of Leila. With a strong, focused voice and his shaved head, Michael Lampard was a more assertive Zurga than Calcagno, but had his own brand of sensitivity. Robert Barbaro made a very creditable Nadir. The improvement in assurance and control between his first and last performances was most notable in his Act I aria, especially in his command of falsetto. More relaxed and confident, he was able to sing more freely and enter more fully into the drama of the story. His duets with Lampard and Zavros were a real pleasure to hear and ample demonstration of how important it is to have an opportunity to develop within a role. Even a couple of performances of a role under a singer’s belt can make a difference.
The same could also be said of the orchestra. By the fifth performance in the Athenaeum the playing was at once more robust and subtler. And the horns that are a feature of Leila’s aria were without blemish! This is not to say that much of the orchestral playing was not stylish and expressive before this, however. The chorus was pretty well in form from the outset. The ladies have been particularly impressive in both the rousing “Brahma” choruses and the gentler numbers, while some strong voices maintained the tenor line.
To complement the musical bounty, lattice screens, graduated levels and even atmospheric incense provided an attractive setting for Hugh Halliday’s thoughtful direction. With gorgeous saris and brightly clad dancing girls, there was colour and movement aplenty within the sometimes cramped confines of the Athenaeum stage. Nevertheless, the central drama and emotional core of the opera was never overwhelmed. The final trio, so reminiscent of the finale of Gounod’s Faust, was a triumphant ending to the opera for both casts and was always greeted with enthusiastic approval by the audience. All in all, this was another success to be chalked up by Melbourne Opera.
Heather Leviston attended performances of Melbourne Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 25, 27 and 30