Review: A splendid hotchpotch of exoticism

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Dance scene from Opera Australia’s THE PEARLFISHERS ©Jeff Busby
“The Pearlfishers,” by Georges Bizet,
Opera Australia
At Sydney Opera House, until August 4.
Reviewed by Helen Musa

Unlike “Carmen,” Bizet’s opera “The Pearlfishers,” is effectively a one-tune show. With the all-time favourite duet, “In the Depths of the Holy Temple” sung by the two male protagonists Nadir and Zurga early in Act I (and frequently rerpised), any director is bound to enhance the action with by dancing and opulent settings, as is the case with this straightforward re-mounting of the 2000 production by Swedish director Ann-Margret Petterson, with original choreography by Rosetta Cook.

Originally intended by Bizet to be set inMexico, the story instead became a monument to 19th century Orientalism, with exotic rituals in temples and people with morals considered lax by the French middle classes of the composer’s time.

Small matter than neither Bizet nor this production’s set designer John Conklin have any idea of what Sri Lanka might look like – the flashback narrative is filtered through the selective memory of the now-aged colonialist Zurga.

That could also explain why three of the main characters Nadir, Leila and the High Priest Nourabad have Muslim names yet worship the Hindu deities Brahma and Siva, while the set features huge statues of the Buddha, and the Priest (Jud Arthur) is costumed like an Achaemenid Persian. Along with the exotic vaguely oriental dancing and the masks of the acolytes, it is a splendid hotchpotch of exoticism.

The three significant principals sing their parts beautifully, with the Opera Australia chorus at its very strongest under the eyes of French conductor Guillaume Tourniare the chorus master Michael Black, rising to a magnificent crescendo at the end of Act II in the prayer/song to Lord Brahma.

In the role of Nadir, Henry Choo’s tenor has evidently matured into a powerful dramatic voice. As his opposite number, Zurga, baritone Andrew Jones mixes torment with force, while as the priestess Leila, Nicole Car personifies beautiful, cold purity.

I had issues with the interpretations, often oddly formal and unsympathetic. The two men seemed reluctant to embrace each other with the passion demanded by the music, as if intimidated by the program notes’ frequent reference to homoeroticism in the work.

And why is it that when handling The Mysterious East, directors resort to stylising hand gestures (it happened in the company’s current productions of “Madama Butterfly” and “Aida”, too) instead of treating them like human beings?

It is understandable that Leila as a holy woman might keep her hands off Nadir, but the couple’s lack of intimacy also seemed at odds with the music.

The objections aside there was beautiful choral music, and the fine voices of the four principals provided sufficient pleasure to quell this reviewer’s reservations.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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