The Pearl Fishers
Review by Cicely Binford
Director Michael Gow‘s The Pearl Fishers has made its way out west as the final production of WA Opera‘s 2016 season. Set in 19th century Ceylon, Gow’s Fishers is brought forward from the rather vague ‘ancient times’ era where it was originally set, and the main male characters are European rather than native Sri Lankan. Gow thereby attempts to paint this story with a different brush; ultimately the shift isn’t revolutionary, but it doesn’t do the story any harm either.
As the overture begins, the Maj’s red velvet curtain gets a temporary deep purple dye job thanks to lighting by Matt Scott, and as it rises to Zurga (Sam Roberts-Smith) sitting languidly in a chair in front of a tree in front of a crumbling temple, the beach temple set by Robert Kemp gets a round of applause. The chorus enters, all draped in orange and yellow traditional dress with garlands of flowers, bangles, bindis, and black wigs. They crown Zurga as their leader, just prior to the arrival of Zurga’s old friend and rival in love, Nadir (performed by last-minute replacement Jonathan Abernethy). The two sing the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” about the woman we’re about to meet: Leila.
Leila (Emma Matthews) arrives on scene in her capacity as priestess to bless the fishermen, and Zurga makes her vow to uphold certain standards at the risk of death while she’s there; “je le jure” she repeats, but it’s not long until she’s broken her vows by lifting her veil and compromising her ‘purity’ by canoodling in secret with her love, Nadir. This is punishable by death, and the fickle chorus/villagers demand blood. Zurga is in quite a pickle: he’s torn by his jealousy, his love, and his loyalty to Nadir. He finds a solution after, by sheer coincidence, he realises that Leila had once saved his life.
The ensemble must make up for the relatively flimsy plot through character, staging, and of course, the music. WASO is conducted by someone who knows the music inside and out: WAO Artistic Director Brad Cohen, who uses his own edition of the score. Kemp’s set regularly draws applause at each curtain rise, and with good reason – the temple structures are impressively rendered, look real and solid, and even have plants ‘growing’ out of them, and the palette is rich and vibrant, in tandem with the gorgeous lighting by Scott.
Matthews gives us a light and bright Leila, with breezy coloratura, cadenzas that tease our ears, and impeccable French. She’s warm and exuberant, and gives a generous performance. Roberts-Smith‘s dark baritone is somewhat subdued in the duet with Abernethy, though his voice is rich and technically strong elsewhere. His Zurga is stoic and rigid until he becomes rather explosive out of jealousy, flinging objects and smacking walls. Abernethy arrives in Perth from Berlin as the hero of the piece – but this isn’t the first time he’s been called in to play Nadir at the last minute: he had to step in mid-performance in Sydney a few months ago. What a whirlwind, the life of an opera performer.
The Pearl Fishers package is a pleasant one, if a bit safe and sedate. Gow’s vision skims the surface of the problematic libretto by Cormon and Carre to try and give it a new sensibility, but in the end the work remains a romantic fantasy on exotic orientalism, wrapped in European modalities.
The Pearl Fishers runs until 5 November at His Majesty’s Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the WAO website here.