George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is not everyone’s cup of tea. But as with cups of tea much depends on the ingredients and the way it is brewed. The State Opera of South Australia has done a remarkable job putting together a truly enjoyable productiion, with attractive sets and colourful costumes. And it also had as a remarkable cast, an outstanding State Opera Chorus directed by chorus master and conductor Graham Abbott, and a brilliantly attuned Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. For good measure director Michael Gow has richly mined the chequered literature about the opera, harvesting rewarding insights into Bizet’s original intentions. He has cast all four principals as foreigners with the chorus as locals, adding another layer to the plot, arguably giving it more sense.

The night belonged to soprano Desiree Frahn, a superb Leïla, bringing a goddess-like voice to the role. Portrayed as a stranger in the pearl-fishing community, brought to Ceylon by Nourabad, a profiteer, to bless the pearl-fishing season, she was welcomed by strong, sweetly resonant singing of the chorus strewing baskets of petals around her. Standing regally, arms outstretched, her initial triple “I swear” to Zurga’s questioning was delivered clearly, sweetly and compellingly – a harbinger of the marvellous singing ahead.

On the other hand, not having the best of nights was baritone Grant Doyle, reprising the role of Zurga he had sung in the State Opera’s 2010 performances. This production opened with him as a European administrator, sitting in a comfortably worn chair in a rundown shrine compound, where the pearl fishers came to elect him “king” for the season, clothing him in cape and bee-hive head-piece. While the chorus sang brilliantly, they often stood lifeless like a bunch of discarded pearl shells. Doyle showed rare passion in Act 3, set in Zurga’s colonial, salt damp ridden office, desk cluttered with whisky bottles. He gave a strong portrayal of a flawed official gloomily melanchic after the passing storm, insanely jealous of close friend Nadir’s rekindled love of Leïla, staggering as he aggressively proclaimed to her his undying love, ultimately grabbing and attempting to rape her as she was about to leave the room. It epitomised the double pain Zurga found difficult to process: the betrayal by Nadir of their vow and the rejection by Leïla of his love. It was powerful acting.

Powerful, too, was Andrew Goodwin’s Nadir. He arrived on stage with rifle and bundle of animal pelts (in case we had forgotten his profession), a delightfully elegant, light, French-style tenor. Endearing in his solos and amazing in his duets, especially the core “Au fond du temple saint” with Doyle, so marvellously enhanced by harp and flute from the orchestra, and the passionate highlight of the night, where in Act 2 after stealing into the temple to be with Leïla, they poured out their pent-up desires for each other. It was a transfixing moment in the opera.

Pelham Andrews’ Nourabad, a role he too sang in 2010, had evolved in this production from high priest of Brahma to commercial profiteer. This worked very well. Basses seem destined to get the less lovable roles and must be resigned to make the most of it. Andrews was portrayed as a believable version of the ever vigilant trader protecting his property. While not a large role, his voice was rich and deep, conveying caringness as he settled Leïla onto her sleeping mat, safely barricaded, he believed, in the depths of the temple.

Although the plot is full of stereotypical characters (except the two leading males bonded in love and random coincidences that must align, there are also beautiful moments of poetic imagery in the libretto, and remarkable orchestration in the score. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was masterfully lyrical in the gossamer highlights, boldly resonate in threatening thunderstorms and angry confrontations and, at the start of Act 3, establishing a premonition of inevitable disaster. Friendship and betrayal are strong emotions which underpin The Pearl Fishers, and with Graham Abbott’s leadership the orchestra evoked them successfully.

This was an Opera Conference production of The Pearl Fishers, shared by the main Australian opera companies. It has allowed producer Michael Gow the opportunity to oversee its maturation and make it his own. He has deliberately returned to the 1863 première version of the conclusion where all is resolved between the trio of Leïla, Nadir and Zurga. Zurga, resigned to his fate, sends the two lovers on their way. As we heard them offstage singing he stood, hands held high, resigned for whatever might ensue. Bizet would have been pleased.