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Victorian Opera: The Pearl Fishers

by Heather Leviston

Brahma must have been listening to the Victorian Opera Chorus’s fervent prayers for mild weather. Since Melbourne’s notoriously fickle weather gods make any performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl a hazardous undertaking, it was a relief to find that The Pearl Fishers would be enjoyed without the lashing rain of two nights previously.

Most audience members had donned layers of winter gear, and the ladies of the Chorus, who seemed to favour puffer jackets to ward off the chills, seemed to be at an advantage over the male performers in suits. Hopefully, Kathryn Radcliffe, who looked stunning as Leila, the object of the two eponymous pearl fishers’ passion, had been equipped with some effective thermal underwear. As the only performer in costume, her stately entrance was all the more effective. Carrying a bunch of scarlet flowers, she looked the picture of white-clad, veiled purity – “the goddess” whose prayers would ensure the safety of the fishing community.

Elizabeth Hill Cooper’s stage direction was spot on with this choice as it encapsulated the romantic exoticism of Bizet’s melodic masterpiece. Most of the staging was executed with a minimum of fuss, but imaginative touches such as when Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the elder priest Nourabad unleashed his accusation against Leila and her lover Nadir made a decided impact. Elevated on a rostrum behind the orchestra, he delivered a towering, spine-chilling denunciation. In addition to Bizet’s evocative orchestration, there were two moments when flashes of “lightning” and shattering amplified sound intensified the drama. Following the bluish watery light bathing the ceiling of the Bowl as the audience took their seats, a series of projected colours reflected the opera’s emotional trajectory.

The story and the music combine to make The Pearl Fishers one of the most popular works in the operatic repertoire. Although Bizet’s Carmen might take precedence, The Pearl Fishers has been a favourite in Melbourne and was one of the last operas conducted by Richard Divall – for Melbourne Opera in 2014, after several incarnations for Victoria State Opera. Whatever the status of the opera in the popularity stakes, “In the Depths of the Temple” would surely rate as the most beloved duet. This puts considerable pressure on the performers. Carlos E. Bárcenas as Nadir and Stephen Marsh as his friend and rival Zurga did not disappoint, in fact, it was the highlight of the evening judging from the applause. And it was not just because the duet itself is so captivating; both singers are ideally suited to their roles. Marsh’s instrument is totally satisfying – always a pleasure to hear in its beautifully rounded rich, even tone. His whole body is engaged in delivering melodic line in its fullness and beauty. Bárcenas possesses a simply extraordinary voice, which finds its niche in the French language. It has the height and refinement of the Rubini tenor – the tenor whose particular vocal gifts were designed for this kind of role. From an appreciative audience keen to applaud most significant items, a lack of applause after his main aria could only be construed as an unwillingness to break the spell woven by his singing. His capacity for the long legato phrase and use of head voice were outstanding.

Although Kathryn Radcliffe’s dramatic flair made her a most appealing Leila, the Bowl’s amplification system did not always do her justice. Her voice has excellent projection, which resulted in her dominating ensemble pieces. This was thrilling when she rode over the chorus, but led to a lack of balance in trios. An edginess and fluttering in the sound in louder passages was also apparent, but there was great beauty and clarity in softer ones.

A certain “boominess” was apparent in the orchestra from timpani and bass strings initially, but Richard Mills marshaled his forces with expert ease. The solo instruments of Orchestra Victoria were admirable, with Sulki Yu’s violin, Yuko Tomanago’s harp (a great deal of fine work there) and Joshua de Graaf’s oboe providing some memorable moments. Having a Chorus comprised of equal forces – nine singers per part with many being notable soloists in their own right – felt like a luxury.

Cloudy conditions kept the chill factor under control; the stars were on the stage. It is a pity that the setup at the Bowl meant that audience members at the side could not read the surtitles and only those in the back sections had the privilege of seeing the performers on the big side screens. Those close-ups were a real bonus.

Photo credit: Charlie Kinross.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s performance of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” presented at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on April 22, 2021.

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