There are a lot of competitors for the title of silliest opera libretto ever, but Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les Pêcheurs des Perles) is in there with a real chance. It might be seen just as a melodramatic romantic triangle dressed up in exotic garb – originally intended to be “ancient” Mexico and relocated before its première to “ancient” Ceylon. To post-colonial eyes, this is somewhat problematical, having nothing to do with any genuine stories of indigenous Sri Lankans. Michael Gow’s new production for Opera Australia (already seen earlier this year in Sydney and Melbourne) compounds these issues by recasting the “native” male principals as Kiplingesque Europeans while leaving Leïla as a Sri Lankan. This is not an entirely new idea, as OA’s previous production (by Ann-Margret Petterson) featured Zurga as a French colonial administrator, who survived into a mellow old age (unlike in this production) to look back on his youthful colonial capers as a distant exotic reverie. Bizet’s idea of exotic music, however, provides a lot of nice colours and textures, even if the show can be characterised as a one-hit wonder; the theme of the famous duet recurs throughout the work, even if some of the other arias are less engaging.

Sam Roberts-Smith (Zurga) and Chorus © James Rogers
Sam Roberts-Smith (Zurga) and Chorus
© James Rogers

The set revealed at curtain-up of this Perth performance excited applause from some quarters with a vista of crumbling walls in front of a glittering sea and blue sky, with a multi-headed deity in a niche (at least this production doesn’t mix up Hindu and Buddhist traditions). The opening of Act III featured Zurga’s colonial dwelling – louvred doors and a wall hung with a multitude of stag and boar heads.

The stage was pretty full with a remarkably pale-skinned chorus of villagers in pleasant red-to-orange-to-yellow saris and sarongs. Zurga, tall and imposing with a full beard, contrasted with Nadir’s youthful clean-shaven look, both being clad in 19th-century colonial shirts, long jackets and breeches. Nourabad was envisaged as a somewhat Simon Legree-creation, with villainous moustaches and a low-rent bowler hat. As if to compensate for the loss of spiritual authority in this figure, a sadhu-type in a dhoti with henna-dyed hair and bifurcated whiskers wandered around in his wake. Leïla was accoutred in blingy sari and veil. A squad of rather grubby Pathan-like militia filled out the cast. There was a certain lack of fluidity in getting everyone around. The person sitting next to me laughed uproariously in a genteel sort of way almost all the way through, particularly as the final curtain fell on the figure of one of the pathans, at Nourabad’s behest, creeping up behind Zurga with an upraised dagger.

Sam Roberts-Smith (Zurga) and Jonathan Abernethy (Nadir) © James Rogers
Sam Roberts-Smith (Zurga) and Jonathan Abernethy (Nadir)
© James Rogers

The previously announced tenor John Longmuir was indisposed on the night, and Nadir was sung by New Zealander Jonathan Abernethy, apparently flown in from Berlin at the last minute. His program CV does not suggest it is a role he has sung before, so his performance was remarkable as a last minute effort. He is certainly a young singer of considerable talent, with a fine ringing tone emerging as the night went on. Zurga was sung by another youngster, West Australian baritone Sam Roberts-Smith, a graduate of the fertile ground of the West Australian Academy of the Performing Arts. His voice had a fine resonant quality across its range, although there was some occasional wavering at the higher end. “Au fond du temple saint” must always be an intimidating ask for its performers and this rendition suffered, as so many these days, from a very evident studied carefulness; one always wishes they would just let it rip. Nourabad does not have a great amount to do vocally, and Wade Kernot was more than adequate in the role, as here rather bizarrely conceived.

Emma Matthews (Leïla) © James Rogers
Emma Matthews (Leïla)
© James Rogers

Emma Matthews is one of the brightest treasures the Australian lyric stage has ever seen, due to her sumptuous voice, acting ability and radiant stage present. Here she did not disappoint. Her rendition of “Me voilà seule dans la nuit” was enchanting, as were her other contributions, displaying a warm, highly coloured and slightly dark-timbred soprano, unforced flowing coloratura and exquisite trills. She depicted brilliantly all the emotional states the character is subject to, and her confrontation with Zurga was especially compelling.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, in fine form, was conducted by WA Opera’s relatively new Artistic Director, Brad Cohen, who felicitously prepared the most recent edition of the score, so clearly the orchestral side of things was in excellent hands. The West Australian Opera Chorus, somewhat variable in the past, sang with great discipline, especially given their at times rather complex movements.

***11