How do we receive an opera that contains a tune so famous that it in itself has acquired layers of cultural meaning beyond this original context? A musical and cultural artifact that has meaning to a population with no idea of the opera it came from?
The Pearlfishers contains a male duet that has become a musical representation of undying faithful devotion transcending any love interest. It has been used everywhere – in a range of contexts from respectful cinematic use all the way to the banality of airline and coffee commercials. Then of course, it’s also among the top ten items on any “highlights of the opera – with all the boring bits left out” collections so beloved of contemporary marketers. What a challenge to stage!
In Opera Australia’s production, the famous melody presents with a freshness and excitement – partly due to the care taken in the gradations of dynamics across the opera as a whole. At first appearance, a little reserved, controlled, then with a wonderful build as it extends, then reappears later with full majesty and breadth. No matter how familiar the tune is – here its grandeur is restored in the way it only can be in the live performance context of the entire opera. This is a triumph of this production very obviously appreciated by the opening night audience.
Speaking of dynamic effects – the score contains so much variety of texture that the musical elements are really the focus of the work. From the delight of both overtures starting at the subtlest levels, and gradually building – a string quartet, then adding woodwinds and so on, until layers of orchestral texture bring our attention to musical narrative, to the expression of emotional response in the melodic writing for the principal singers, to the colourful chorus work. This is a score that shows Bizet’s rich variety and expressive capacity, later to reach greater heights with Carmen.
The singing is all we could want – clear, expressive and in balance throughout the various combinations and ensembles. The solos of course gave maximum opportunity for characterization, but the ensemble work showed this too. Emma Matthews (soprano) as Léïla gave her role a bell-like clarity as well as delicate expression. In this she was ably supported by Dmitry Korchak (tenor) as Nadir, José Carbó (baritone) as Zurga and Steven Gallop (bass) as Nourabad. The Opera Australia Chorus was thrilling here too in its range of colour from almost a whisper to rich ensemble and hair-raising climaxes.
Orchestra Victoria under Guilliame Tourniaire was a beautiful support and setting for the opera, showing finely judged dynamic levels, and carefully thought out tempi throughout. Clearly, as much thought had been spent on the whole range required – from sensitive to huge – everything in well-judged proportion.
The sets, costumes (Robert Kemp) and lighting (Matt Scott) create sumptuous visual elements – the temple itself we might expect to be realistic, but the water and sky effects are startlingly realistic, with the changes of light throughout times of day and night. These effects I felt as much as saw. For example, where the chorus sings of the stars bathing in the calm sea, the visual effect on stage reflected that just as vividly as a remembered real world summer holiday. Though they were subtle, I found these elements contributed greatly to the effect of the piece.
That the story, drama and libretto are half baked – and even that is possibly a kind assessment – is a point made with delightful candour by director Michael Gow in his exceptionally interesting program notes. These explore both the writing and the performance history of the piece, and highlight the ambiguities, inaccuracies and inconsistencies throughout the work that remain as challenges for any subsequent performances. They also explain why some choices had to be made.
Gow warns us not to look too deeply for meaning in the story – there is simply too much cultural inaccuracy to make much nuanced sense of it at this level, but what I found instead was the truths in the personal emotional responses that come through in both the writing and the performances. For me, these became the focus of truth in the Pearlfishers.
I couldn’t help but make a wider socio-political observation for myself though. Léïla – the “woman in the veil” is effectively a vestal virgin. Society is perfectly happy to hold her to standards of behavior to which they would never dream of holding themselves. When the calm seas are disrupted by a storm, the villagers are certain that Léïla’s break with chastity is the cause. Their superstitions are fed by their religious leader. He goes to the highest level of governance in the village to demand her death.
The men in positions of power are entrepreneurs, the pearl traders. Their “election” is based in money. The life or death decisions are taken because of personal jealousy. The mood of the villagers is something to be manipulated.
In presenting a work such as this there is always some cringe at the depiction of an assumed primitive society – but as I contemplated the nature of the interactions, I could not help but draw parallels with our own society. People held in a public spotlight of impossible societal expectations, tabloid media in the position of peddler of superstition and caller of witch hunts, money makers in the positions of power using it to satisfy desire for revenge … have we really come very far?
In any case, having established that the real reason to see this opera is not the plot, but to hear the glorious music and see the splendid staging. In this, Opera Australia’s Pearlfishers satisfies enormously.
Opera Australia’s production of The Pearlfishers is at the Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre from May 7 – 28, 2016.
The picture is by Jeff Busby.