IF ever there were an operatic one hit wonder, it would have to be “The Pearlfishers” and Opera Australia is happy to gloat that the rare tenor-baritone duet “In the depths of the temple” was voted number one in Classic FM’s 2005-6 “Opera 100” poll.
No wonder, almost homo-erotic in its tender depiction of a shared love, it is a must at most “opera in the …” concerts. But can it sustain a whole opera?
Gow gives it his best shot with this sensible yet scholarly interpretation of an opera loved for that Act I aria but otherwise reviled. With its unconvincing plot, coincidences, exaggerated Orientalism and inaccurate attention to detail, the opera is full of names fished out of the air, a Hindu temple in the south coast of Buddhist Sri Lanka and other improbabilities.
Gow has borne in mind the craze for the exotic in Bizet’s time and the fact that he was presented by his commissioning producer with a completed libretto and told to set it to music, noting that while “The Pearlfishers” manages to get almost every cultural reference wrong, in “Carmen” he got everything right.
In a simple yet brilliant stroke Gow turns the three male principals into European carpetbaggers who are exploiting the common people in Sri Lanka and playing upon their superstitions. He admits that the idea has been around for a while, but never for all three characters.
Gow stops short at tampering with the libretto, but given that their names, Zurga, Nadir and Nourabad, have nothing much to do with the location, he creates a colonial-era world of, racketeers, planters and drunks. The sense of tired dissipation in the characters is well matched by Robert Kemp’s decaying settings, and colonial bungalow – mouldy and in semi-ruin. No gold and lapis lazuli here.
This introduction of a European motif also covers the shaky theology of the original opera, which using Brahmanism mixed with Christian notions of heaven. While in the original Nourabad (surely a Muslim name) is conceived as a Brahmin priest, here he is a shyster who exploits the local priest.
Invigorated by the greater realism, the OA chorus, clad in saris and sarongs of great variety, deliver a hearty and impassioned vocal element to the crowd scenes, rising or a terrifying crescendo as they mend the death of the girl Leila.
It is meat and drink to the male actors. Jose Carbo as the jealous Zurga makes a meal of this tormented character, while Slovakian tenor Pavol Brezik plays up the deceitfulness of his character and bass Daniel Sumegi as Nourabad rounds out his sketchy characters with condescending dismissal of the ‘natives’ that speaks volumes.
An exquisite vocal performance of the ‘goddess’-girl Leila by Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina grounds out this enigmatic character in a social context that makes sense. Gow’s concern is not social comment, and he writes, “I wanted to create specific characters of flesh and blood instead of cardboard.”
Michael Gow and Opera Australia have done service to the reputation of Bizet with this production.