No longer under the shadow of Carmen, Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles has now become a firm audience favourite thanks to its memorable melodies, exotic locale, and frequently scantily-clad singers. Zandra Rhodes’ dazzling production certainly hit the mark on that score, but was rather let down on the musical side. Bizet’s score may be clunky at times but remains a lush, memorable evocation of French orientalism. Here, however, despite strong individual performances, it simply failed to cohere.

John Tessier as Nadir, Brett Polegato as Zurga © Philip Newton
John Tessier as Nadir, Brett Polegato as Zurga
© Philip Newton

The indisputable star of the evening was Brett Polegato, who dominated the stage whenever he appeared. His large, burnished baritone easily encapsulates all of Zurga’s vocal and emotional demands, ranging from stunning floated pianissimi in the first act to the thundering, nearly Wagnerian outbursts in later acts. Best of all was Zurga’s Act 3 soliloquy, sensitively sung with impeccable French style and diction. More importantly, Polegato successfully conveyed the complex torment of the role – from powerful leader to unfulfilled lover to desperate friend, it was a pleasure to see a performance that transcended the stock love triangle cliché. 

Fellow Canadian John Tessier’s high, almost haute-contre tenor is ideal for Nadir’s Act 1 romance – combining an easy legato with a finely modulated voix mixte, this was by far the best performance I’ve heard of this killer aria. Tessier shows a strong command of the style, and his crystalline French was the finest in the cast. Additionally, his impetuous physicality also lent a nice degree of realism to the role. However, there is no getting around the fact that his voice is one size too small for the part in a house of this size, nearly disappearing during his duets with both baritone and soprano.

Maureen McKay as Leila © Elise Bakketun
Maureen McKay as Leila
© Elise Bakketun
As the priestess who comes between them, Maureen McKay looked stunning in Zandra Rhodes’ colourful saris and moved with the grace of a ballerina. However, despite an easy trill and some beautifully floated high notes, her lyric soprano came to grief in the coloratura of the first act as well as her big aria. She found herself far more at home in the latter part of the role, showing surprising reserves of power that reached thrilling heights when combined with Polegato’s rich baritone. The weakest link of the cast was Jonathan Lemalu’s Nourabad, who, despite his charismatic stage presence, made little impact with his small, tremulous bass-baritone. He was certainly not helped by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak’s leaden conducting, which lumbered through the score where gossamer transparency is required.

© Elise Bakketun
© Elise Bakketun
Zandra Rhodes’ production, first seen in San Diego in 2004, is a colourful, sexy send-up of French orientalism, complete with neon palm trees and ribbon dancers. In addition to the costumes, Rhodes also designed the sets, which are simple, whimsical, and effectively represent the burning heat of Ceylon. The textiles are, of course, gorgeous, and the final tableau featuring a giant unfurling fire was quite literally breathtaking. However, the production did little to evoke the silky, perfumed romance of the second act, and Andrew Sinclair’s perfunctory direction simply reinforced the clunkiness of the plot. Despite this, the entertaining and often beautiful production did Bizet’s orientalist fantasies justice, even when paired with an uneven musical performance.